Paul Blomfield: Tackling slavery means action to protect workers

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THERE was one of those good days for Westminster last Tuesday when MPs on all sides of the House agreed. On this occasion, it was to tackle the scourge of modern day slavery. Like many colleagues, I welcomed the Home Secretary’s commitment to end the appalling abuses faced by many vulnerable people, particularly migrants. But, as I argued during the debate, without other policy changes, Theresa May will not achieve her objective.

Modern slavery is a very real problem in Britain today. The case of companies like DJ Houghton Catching Services in Kent throws a light on what’s happening. They used slave gangs of Lithuanian men, who were exploited and abused in farms across the UK to catch chickens for suppliers of our biggest supermarket chains. That company’s licence was revoked when their activities were exposed, but the problem is far wider.

Any effective response to modern slavery must address the so called “three Ps” – preventing abuse, protecting victims and prosecuting those responsible. The Home Secretary has thought long and hard about prosecution, but much less about prevention and protection. Prevention is only included in her Bill where a crime has already been committed or is suspected.

But true prevention stops an act from happening at all and, for this, effective monitoring and enforcement of labour standards is key. Indeed cases such as DJ Houghton have been uncovered in high-risk sectors such as agriculture and food processing only by the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority (GLA). But the Government is weakening monitoring and enforcement.

In a report published on the day of our debate, the Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee highlighted this issue as a major problem. It said that, because of the lack of resources available to pursue this essential work, employers can expect a minimum wage compliance visit once every 250 years, and, at the current rate, face prosecution once every million years.

Last month, in a welcome move, the UK Government voted for a recommendation to the international Forced Labour Convention calling for improved labour inspections and enforcement. But it has slashed labour inspections and, in its eagerness to attack so-called “red tape”, has removed vital protections for workers.

The Health and Safety Executive has had its funding reduced by 35 per cent and has reduced its proactive inspections by one third since 2011. Cases opened by the National Minimum Wage (NMW) Inspectorate have fallen from a peak of 4,773 in 2007-08 to 1,615 in 2012-13 and there are very few criminal prosecutions for failure to pay the NMW.

Modern day slavery thrives in the UK by feeding off victims’ vulnerability, dependency and marginalisation. Victims are coerced by violence and, more commonly, by psychological means including abuse of power, deception and threats. Exploiters use vague employment arrangements as well as hidden costs, fees and debts owed by workers to trap people in precarious situations.

For example, increasing numbers of construction workers face the problem of false self-employment. While the workforce has been falling, the construction union, UCATT reports the numbers of self-employed workers rose by 37,000 over two years to 2011/12 – and it’s estimated that around half of these are falsely self-employed. This leaves them vulnerable to abuse, as employers are absolved of responsibility for their employment rights and entitlements. And, despite recognising it is a problem, the Government has reduced safety protections for two-thirds of all self-employed workers.

Other protections have been sacrificed by this Government, such as reduced health and safety reporting requirements, and the introduction of fees for employment tribunals. Enforcement of GLA licence violations has been undermined by light sentences awarded in many labour exploitation cases.

Prevention of modern day slavery means ensuring that the cracks in our labour protection framework are closed. To do this we need an effective labour inspectorate that engages with workers to identify those who are exploiting them; we need a strengthened GLA which is adequately resourced for intelligence gathering and enforcement – and with a remit extended to high-risk sectors such as construction, hospitality, care and cleaning. Finally, we need a GLA that can enforce unpaid wages and other payments due to workers.

The Home Secretary deserves credit for pushing the issue of modern day slavery to the front of the political agenda. But we cannot combat modern slavery with one hand while the other hand is actively promoting the very conditions under which it can take root.

Paul Blomfield is MP for Sheffield Central and a Board member of Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX).