What are migrant workers' experiences of forced labour and exploitation in the UK food industry?
Research into experiences of forced labour/exploitation was conducted with migrant workers in the food industry across England and Scotland. A deeper understanding of the circumstances under which forced labour/exploitation occur and how it is organised is now available.
Drawing on in-depth interviews with 62 migrant workers (mainly Polish, Chinese, Latvian and Lithuanian) across five locations (London, Liverpool, South-West England, Lincolnshire and East - Central Scotland), the study:
This study is part of JRF's forced labour programme. It aims to highlight the issue with new robust evidence on the extent of forced labour in the UK and interventions that might contribute to its eradication.
Forced labour recently became a criminal offence via the 2009 Coroners and Justice Act (Section 71) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the 2010 Criminal Justice and Licensing Act (Section 47) in Scotland.
The ILO (International Labour Organisation) defines forced labour as comprising of six core indicators: physical or sexual violence; restriction on movement; bonded labour; withholding of wages; retention of passports and identity documents; threat of denunciation to the authorities. However, for the purposes of this research – and reflecting the increasingly nuanced approach of others including the ILO – the researchers expanded this list to involve 19 forced labour indicators set out in the main report.
The indicators were used for two purposes. First, they provided a set of criteria for selecting and recruiting interviewees. Second, they allowed the team to look across the sample of 62 interviewees and establish the most/ least significant forms of forced labour. Conditions for forced labour
Four key factors created conditions for forced labour: migrant labour use; low-paid, demanding work; job flexibility; expendability.
The strong relationship between use of migrant labour and exploitation was particularly noteworthy. It derives from migrants' economic circumstances, limited English language ability, widespread use of tied housing, and reliance on gangmasters (often from their own community).
The research identified 14 forced labour practices in the UK food industry, some examples of which are set out below (the full 14 are available in the main report); although individually insufficient to constitute forced labour, they rarely existed in isolation:
Forced labour and exploitation affected individuals in five main ways. Many migrants lived in both relative and absolute poverty. Their work experiences had shattered their perceptions of the UK. They had lost their spirit: they felt powerless, afraid of complaining and were acutely aware of how employers sanctioned those who did complain. Forced labour practices sometimes led directly to poor mental health: a number were depressed, miserable, withdrawn or apathetic. In a few cases, the intensity of work led to physical harm.
Poverty: "I was working but ending up without any money at all. Because by the time I've paid my petrol ... my bills ... my food all the money was gone!" (Weronikia, woman, 31, Polish)
Broken dreams: "My dreams did not come true ... I thought that I will earn a lot of money, but I did not." (Zhanna, woman, 42, Latvian)
Powerlessness: "We come here to ... make a living. It's about survival. Sometimes I come across difficulties and feel bullied and suppressed, but I put up with it, and it will pass. Feeling bullied or suppressed is normal and unavoidable … There are no alternatives." (Ah Lin, man, 50, Chinese)
Mental health: "I was hating the alarm clock. When it was ringing ... and knew I had to go back there, I felt like the sky was falling on me, but I had … no other choice. I needed money I needed work … I didn’t care anymore, I was at the point when you’d rather kill me than go back there … I lost weight, I was ... sad all the time, tense and day-by-day you are being treated like the least nothing on earth." (Adriana, woman, 30, Romanian)
Physical health: "Everyone has got back pains. And you have to stand for eight hours next to a container with cold meat, so you can imagine how cold you are! Painkillers all the time because you would not be able to work … cold takes a lot out of your body." (Izabela, woman, 44, Polish)
The bottom of the UK labour market, despite protections, can be deeply unattractive and all-too-often exploitative. Work is tough, low-paid and insecure; many interviewees barely earned enough to survive. Fear and powerlessness were almost ubiquitous, with ample evidence of workers made to feel expendable and replaceable. Although none were actually coerced into work, this insecurity, allied with material deprivation, made it difficult to distinguish between free and unfree employment relationships.
Although workers have legal protection from exploitation, migrants appeared reluctant to seek justice through civil or criminal mechanisms. Resolving a grievance usually meant changing employer, accommodation and/or employment agency. This partly explains why so many interviewees put up with non-/under-payment of wages, excessive deductions and chronically long hours with insufficient breaks.
Migrant workers appear especially vulnerable to exploitation. Many have to accept marginal employment out of economic necessity. Their options are also limited by language ability. Newly arrived migrants often rely on gangmasters to find employment and accommodation, and here exploitation is common.
Exploitation differs in key ways by sector. In food production, conditions are shaped by the competitive pressures that large suppliers and their customers (retailers) place on employers. In minority ethnic catering, conditions are shaped by intense competition among outlets and cultural business practices. These conditions explain why low-paid, insecure, sometimes exploitative employment exists. Exploitation cannot be explained solely by isolated criminal employers or employment agencies.
Importantly, the study found that it is impossible to distinguish between exploitation and forced labour. Looking for forced labour involves seeking general exploitation, then making case-by-case judgements as to whether this is severe or frequent enough to constitute forced labour.