How widespread is forced labour in the UK?

Forced labour is a disturbing aspect of the UK’s labour market. We need to do more to prevent the several thousand victims suffering this crime each year and ensure supply chains are slavery-free, says Louise Woodruff.

Today we are publishing an in-depth report on forced labour in the UK, with comprehensive analysis of the evidence of forced labour in the UK. The authors looked at evidence from the courts, public agencies, NGOs, key informants, research and local groups. Its publication coincides with a new JRF paper on the coverage of forced labour and human trafficking in the UK media.

What are the most significant findings in this new body of research?

We know that that forced labour is not usually an isolated crime but one extreme of a spectrum of labour exploitation. This research brings together information about the labour market and labour rights with data on human trafficking for labour exploitation. It reinforces the point that forced labour is about the workplace – and much of it occurs in a small section of legitimate industries where businesses and individuals behave illegally towards workers. Sectors which have forced labour in their supply chains tend to share characteristics:

  • low pay,
  • high levels of use of temporary and agency labour, and 
  • recruitment of mainly migrant workers.

But this research shows that data on forced labour in the UK is hard to find and it is still difficult to assess scope and scale. This is exacerbated by poorly-understood forced labour definitions, and the terms human trafficking, modern slavery, forced labour and labour exploitation are often conflated and confused. Better development of the so-called ‘indicators’ of forced labour is required. Most importantly a proper data strategy is needed so that UK authorities, business sectors and campaigners can get a better sense of the scale of the problem to enable them to monitor and respond to trends.

While human trafficking may result in forced labour, many victims will not have been trafficked. And although migrant workers are particularly vulnerable, UK citizens are victims too; migrant workers who are victims mostly have the right to live and work in the UK. So this is not an issue of tightening borders or tweaking immigration rules but clamping down on businesses and individuals that exploit workers and break the law.

A range of legal interventions are available to address forced labour, through the criminal and civil systems. But there are problems with enforcement, where more training and resources would make a real difference. Despite the successes of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, levels of labour inspection in the UK are weak or non-existent in many industries. This research asks the Government to consider expanding the role of the GLA to other sectors using labour providers. Recent changes which will make it more difficult for victims to access employment tribunals and changes to the visa system for overseas domestic workers are two examples of a worrying trend which sees the weakening rather than strengthening of employment rights.

But it is not just up to Government to address forced labour. Although it devises the regulatory and enforcement environment, businesses (in both the private and public sectors) have a vital role to play in tackling forced labour in their supply chains.

The public and policy profile of forced labour and extreme labour exploitation is changing, with more recognition that this is a serious problem alongside trafficking for sexual exploitation and child trafficking. Viewing these offences as a rotten part of legitimate labour markets should not dilute the real suffering experienced by victims, but enable interventions which provide a deterrent to rogue employers and justice for victims.

Above all, a proper strategy is needed to pull together the different aspects to addressing forced labour – across different industries and parts of government, including the four nations.

Read more about forced labour in the UK.