How Migrant Workers Have Been Abandoned During Covid-19

Migrant workers with 'No Recourse to Public Funds' have been excluded from the social safety net throughout Covid-19 – forcing them to work in dangerous conditions and for unscrupulous bosses.

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen the world of work revolutionised both in the public’s understanding of what constitutes “essential” work but also in our understanding of safety in and outside the workplace.

Safety means physical and financial protection, the ability to sustain yours and your family’s life – whether you’re in an office, a hospital or working from home, whether you’re in work or unemployed. But while British workers have been able to rely on some support from government during this crisis, many migrants in the same industries have been excluded from it. Just as the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the fragile nature of work for everyone, for migrant workers the additional effects of the Hostile Environment have created a unique combination of fear, abuse and dangerous conditions at work.

At least 3.7 million workers in the UK are in insecure work, including a significant number of migrant workers who are employed in the gig economy, and in essential industries like food production, health, and social care. Most documented and undocumented migrants, the vast majority of whom are workers, are subject to No Recourse to Public Funds conditions, depriving them of basic support services.

For many British citizens, being able to rely on furlough schemes or welfare support like Universal Credit throughout the pandemic has allowed them to follow the government guidance to “stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.” But migrants in insecure work without access to the public safety net have been forced to work in unsafe conditions. They cannot remove themselves from unsafe housing, and in many cases are unable to effectively self-isolate or feed their families.

The experiences of Boohoo factory workers in Leicester threw into sharp relief the real impact for communities, when individual workers are denied health and safety protections, forced to work without being able to claim sick pay or benefits and are unable to afford safe and secure housing. Leicester’s garment factories have been the subject of concern for years.

In 2019, Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee heard that it was an “open secret” that many of the factories or workshops in the city pay below minimum wage. In many cases, the mostly migrant workforce has been paid as little as £3 an hour. While this can be attributed to rogue employers, it is important to recognise that the UK’s migration laws create an environment in which exploitation in the workplace is allowed to thrive.

The UK is unique in its “illegal working” offence, for the simple reason that the provision places the burden of responsibility on migrants themselves – designating any work without correct documentation as “illegal.” In many European countries, migrants are able to work without documentation, allowing them to both access workplace rights and carve out a clear pathway to settlement.

As employers, too, are penalised for hiring people without the correct documentation, the effects are two-fold. In the first instance, employers are disincentivised from hiring migrant workers for fear that they may not have the correct paperwork – creating a culture of discrimination in employment practices which extends to British citizens or anyone with a “foreign-sounding” name. And those undocumented migrants who need work to survive are forced to look for work among the most unscrupulous and exploitative of employers.

On top of this, the UK has one of the weakest and most chronically under-resourced labour law enforcement structures in Europe. In 2019, the annual report from the Director of Labour Market Enforcement found that the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate which monitors employment agencies has just one inspector per 2,850 agencies. In 2018, there were over 31,500 employment agencies.

This means that many abusive employers are able to get away with the exploitation of workers, particularly undocumented workers who are unable to come forward and report their employers for fear of repercussions. And while the government pays lip service to tackling modern slavery and exploitation in the workplace, in practice it is far more common for the Home Office to negotiate with abusive employers to report undocumented employees rather than subject them to a fine.

We already know that the Hostile Environment not only impacts irregular migrants but directly causes racial discrimination for British citizens and can make life far more difficult for everyone in employment too, not just those without documentation. Workers with a legal right to be in the UK, particularly those who are on lower wages, become unsure of their rights and in many cases are denied employment if they do not present the “right” documentation.

This is exactly what happened to members of the Windrush generation, like Kenneth Williams, who suddenly found themselves unable to work due to these restrictive measures. What the criminalisation of undocumented work represents is a transfer of power away from all workers – regardless of where they were born. We need a firewall between labour inspection services and immigration enforcement, so people can report exploitation without fear of deportation. And we desperately need to see the “illegal working” offence repealed. Both would be important steps towards tackling endemic exploitation and abuse in our labour market, and protecting the dignity of all workers.

These changes are necessary and urgent. As the government forges ahead with Brexit, migrant workers of all kinds are at further risk of discrimination and exploitation. Cleaners, taxi drivers, delivery drivers, shopkeepers, nurses, carers, plumbers, bin workers and primary school teachers – the very people we have relied on throughout the pandemic – would all fall victim to the current government agenda to introduce a “points-based system” for migration after Brexit.

The introduction of this new system embeds the idea that so called “high-skilled” work is more valuable than others, but also creates new residency routes which will subject migrant workers to huge risk of exploitation. In essence the system reinforces the idea that the working class has no value to our communities.

As we enter into a second wave of the pandemic, it is vital that the government rectifies the mistakes it made the first time around. That must look like suspending the Hostile Environment immediately, so that all migrants are able to work legally, access union support and have full protection from exploitative employers.

But as we look ahead to rebuilding our society, we too have to reimagine what the future of work looks like and ensure that migrant workers are considered a vital component of our workforce. Levelling up the rights of migrant workers is essential to the wellbeing of our communities, because if we have learned anything from the pandemic it is that we are only as safe and as healthy as the least protected amongst us.