Migrant workers at greater risk of modern slavery after Brexit, research finds

<span>Strict post-Brexit conditions on agricultural and care visas expose workers to ‘hyper-precarity’, a report has found.</span><span>Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
Strict post-Brexit conditions on agricultural and care visas expose workers to ‘hyper-precarity’, a report has found.Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Visas created hastily to solve labour shortages as a result of Brexit have put workers at greater risk of modern slavery and exploitation, research has found.

Strict conditions on agricultural and care visas created after Britain left the EU expose workers to “hyper-precarity” and increase their vulnerability to exploitation, a study by a coalition of leading universities and charities has concluded. Since Brexit, farm workers and care home workers have had a route to Britain on time-limited visas with stringent conditions.

Workers on the schemes faced significant issues of debt and deductions from wages because of illegal recruitment fees as well as costs incurred from travel, training, accommodation and high visa charges, researchers found. They also described deception by intermediaries, who misled workers about the conditions and length of employment they could expect.

Migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation was compounded by the hostile environment as fears of immigration enforcement action deterred them from reporting mistreatment or exploitation to the authorities, researchers found. The risks were increased by the fact that government agencies charged with enforcing employment rights were underfunded and did not have capacity to audit workplaces proactively, the study said.

Dr Inga Thiemann at the University of Leicester, who led the research team, said there was a high risk of “labour exploitation and debt bondage” under both visas. She said Brexit had made workers more vulnerable because those coming from Europe had previously “had the possibility to make complaints and to talk about labour exploitation because they wouldn’t risk their status automatically if their employer revoked the sponsorship”.

Thiemann added: “What we see a lot of in the care sector is that people aren’t willing to come forward even if they are experiencing severe labour abuse because they are not sure that they can find another sponsor within the timeframe that the Home Office gives them to do so. So they’re more afraid of losing their job and having to go back home and having all this debt they have incurred than they are of continuing with the exploitation they are experiencing.”

She said it needed to be easier for workers to change employers, so that moving jobs was “an actual possibility”, adding: “It cannot stay in this hypothetical state because otherwise workers are just too vulnerable.”

One man who came to Britain from the Philippines under a care worker visa in 2022 said he often had to work 12-hour shifts without breaks looking after residents with dementia for minimum wage. The man, 30, who previously worked as a teacher, said he paid more than £3,000 for flights for him and his wife to come at less than two weeks’ notice and was still paying his sister back for the flight.

He told the Guardian: “Everything just goes on whatever you’re paying for and nothing is left. I tried my luck here but right now I have more debt than before and I’ve been here a year and a half.”

He said he was also being charged almost £300a month in unclear fees from the agents who brought him to Britain. “They say it’s for processing of our visas, but in my opinion they’re trying to get money from us,” he said.

He had been expecting accommodation to be included with the job but had to rent a room in a shared house with his wife and new baby, which uses up most of his income. “I came here to give my family a good chance of living and provide for them and it’s a scary feeling to be in this spot.

“Some of my colleagues had to pay job-finding fees of thousands of pounds to get here … I’m continuously looking for another job. My colleagues even sold land and cars back home just to come here. I need to be strong for my kid and my wife but it’s very stressful.”

Care worker visas have also come under criticism from the former chief inspector of borders and immigration, whose inspection of immigration in the care sector was published this week. In his foreword, David Neal wrote that the Home Office had used a visa model based on one for highly skilled workers sponsored by multinationals and “applied it to a high-risk area – migration into an atomised and poorly paid sector”.

Neal noted: “Its control measures to mitigate the risk were totally inadequate. There is just one compliance officer for every 1,600 employers licensed to sponsor migrant workers.”

The seasonal worker visa has faced similar criticism and was rolled out before a pilot of the plan was reviewed. The report noted that the Home Office continued to expand the scheme despite strong evidence of worker exploitation and mistreatment.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We do not tolerate illegal activity in the labour market and will always take decisive action where we believe abusive practices are taking place. To address concerns about abuse within the health and care worker sector, providers in England are now only able to sponsor migrant workers if they are undertaking activities regulated by the Care Quality Commission.

“The seasonal workers route has been running for four years and each year improvements have been made to stop exploitation and clamp down on poor working conditions while people are in the UK.”