Work was never meant to be fun. Consider the etymology of the French travail and the Spanish trabajo, each a translation of the English noun “work”: their Latin root is trepaliare, “to torture, to inflict suffering or agony.” But the way work works has changed. Exploitation and abuse of workers is widespread across the UK economy, according to a new report, which finds that 17 sectors are high-risk for mistreatment ranging from wages theft to slavery.
Construction, recycling, nail bars and car washes were among the top sectors where the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) said there was slavery. Agriculture, food packing, fishing, shellfish gathering, warehouse and distribution, garment manufacturing, taxi driving , retail, domestic work, and social care were also highlighted in the report.
Reported cases of slavery have increased 35% year on year, with the UK being one of the biggest destinations in Europe for trafficking of workers for labour exploitation. Debt bondage – where migrants often become indebted to recruitment agencies for travel or illegal work-finding fees – is common. Bogus self-employment contracts are also regularly used to disguise abuse, with intelligence suggesting this is a growing problem in sectors such as cleaning, construction and flower picking. Zero-hours contracts linked to abuses are highlighted in agriculture, construction, food packing and security services, despite many workers effectively being permanent staff. The report also finds that organised crime groups are active in the labour market in many sectors. Most intelligence about victims of labour exploitation in the last 12 months has related to Romanian men in their 20s and 30s, while Romanian and British nationals are the most prevalent offender nationalities across all forms of modern slavery. Albanian organised crime is a significant factor in abuse in car washes.
Long shifts of 12-15 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, wages below the legal minimum or not paid at all, and dangerous working and living environments were issues common to several sectors. But different sectors also had problems specific to them. In nail bars the victims of trafficking for labour exploitation were mostly Vietnamese, with evidence that tax fraud and money laundering was also taking place.
In the agriculture sector, the GLAA found evidence of 15-hour days, sometimes seven days a week, with double shifts without proper breaks, illegally low pay, serious safety incidents going unreported, and very poor living conditions. Romanian and Bulgarian workers were currently most at risk in this sector. Criminal groups were reported to be trafficking foreign workers into the food processing sector, with licensed companies warning they were being undercut by unlicensed ones.
Wages in food service, hotels and catering could be as low as £10 per shift, with some employees working up to 15 hours a day, and sleeping on floors. In car washes, the GLAA found trafficking, 12-hour shifts seven days a week, wages below the legal minimum, dangerous accommodation on site, and exploitation of undocumented workers. Romanians made up the largest number of victims.
One-third of UK garment manufacturing is based in Leicester but up to 75% of workers in the city’s textile factories are said to be paid less than the legal minimum wage. The report says in some places more than half the workforce is made up of undocumented workers mainly doing night shifts. Victims of exploitation in this sector are predominantly Pakistani and Romanian.
Convoluted supply chains and subcontracting makes the UK construction sector, employing about 3 million workers, high-risk too. Its widespread use of self-employment contracts is directly linked to exploitation, according to the report. Gangmasters operating in the UK are also moving workers around internationally to meet shifting demand on building sites.
The chair of the parliamentary select committee for work, Frank Field, said both government and consumers needed to wake up to the scale of abuse. “This report sheds much needed light on some of the most rotten, grotesque and evil practices that afflict the bottom of our labour market. Slave labour is being used to prop up companies in large swaths of the economy. What is puzzling is how the government machinery and consumer backlash have yet fully to come to terms with this phenomenon.”
About 400 investigations by different bodies into modern slavery were active in October last year, but there are still few prosecutions, and convictions decreased by 6% between 2015 and 2017. The GLAA has opened 181 criminal investigations itself in the last year.
The NGO Focus on Labour Exploitation (Flex), said lack of resources was undermining government efforts on modern slavery. “Labour abuses put workers at a high risk of exploitation, with growing numbers in modern slavery – migrant and UK workers alike. We must urgently reverse the huge cuts to labour inspection in recent years,” its director, Caroline Robinson, said.