How UK asylum system creates perfect conditions for modern slavery and exploitation to thrive

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How UK asylum system creates perfect conditions for modern slavery and exploitation to thrive

For asylum seekers, trying to find work in another country is very difficult. Not only is there often a language barrier and reams of paperwork, but there is also the fact that government systems can encourage exploitation.

Asylum seekers in the UK receive £37.75 a week to live on, and most are prohibited from working. But this small amount of money often fails to allow people to meet their basic needs. This leads some to search for work to supplement their income. But herein lies the problem, as the only people willing to employ them are those happy to do so illegally. This leaves asylum seekers with no bargaining power to negotiate reasonable pay or working conditions.

Yet the risk of exploitation does not end with a positive asylum decision. Refugees are often dispersed out of London and the south-east to other areas in the UK. The areas of dispersal are determined by the availability of temporary housing. In many cases, this is concentrated around areas of economic deprivation.

This risk is exacerbated by the delays in receiving important documents commonly experienced by refugees. And when government support ends but their national insurance numbers have not yet arrived, refugees are vulnerable. They have no income and no way to access welfare or legitimate work. This leaves them with little choice but to seek work with people willing to employ them illegally.

Modern slavery

Prime minister Theresa May has vowed to help rid the world of the “barbaric evil of modern slavery”. And the adoption of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 was applauded by many. It helped to position the UK as a global leader in this field.

Under the Modern Slavery Act, a person commits an offence if they hold someone in slavery or servitude, or require them to perform forced or compulsory labour. The person must also know, or ought to know, that they are doing so.

Labour exploitation can occur anywhere. Shutterstock

But a key flaw of this phrasing is that it rests all the blame at the feet of the perpetrator. This overlooks the exploitative environments that allow such an offence to take place. These environments are, ironically, commonly generated by the government, such as banning asylum seekers from working and tying overseas domestic workers to their employers.

In this way, global capitalist pressures on labour markets and the search for cheaper alternative workers can lead to slavery. Since the late 1980s, transnational companies have shifted production to places where labour and inputs are cheapest – often due to a lack of unionisation. But the Modern Slavery Act fails to recognise this. Instead, it insists on defining modern slavery as a crime – a relationship between just the victim and the perpetrator.

Nationalism and modern slavery

May describes modern slavery as “the greatest human rights challenge of our time”. She has encouraged other Commonwealth states to adopt legislation reflecting the Act. This stance links to notions of empire, with the British government seeking to reassert its position as a global power through morally laden legislation such as the Modern Slavery Act. At the same time, it seems to gloss over its own “hostile environment” anti-migration immigration policy.

This undercurrent of nationalism influences how people are identified as victims. Newspaper stories emphasise the exceptionality of British victims – such as “British children forced into modern slavery” – but often overlook migrant victims of slavery.

But the Act also continues to overlook how government policies contribute to environments that allow exploitation to exist. This is a fundamental weakness and the Act should provide avenues to strengthen bargaining power and imbalances of labour instead.

Woven into society

So although the government claims that it “will lead the way in defeating modern slavery” it is actually generating environments that encourage exploitation. The government’s stubborn position towards migrant domestic workers, for example, prevents them from accessing their rights. They are restricted in changing employers – and a recent case saw a number of migrants questioned over their immigration status as they attended Union meetings.

The two temporary migration programmes suggested for post-Brexit Britain, in agriculture and horticulture, will exacerbate this – as the concerns of businesses continue to trump those of the migrant workers.


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In this way, the Act works as a smokescreen. It is employed almost as an avoidance strategy – a method to escape confronting the processes through which exploitation has been woven into the very fabric of society.

This demonstrates the government’s superficial commitment to eradicating the “scourge of modern slavery”. And illustrates how the overwhelming focus on criminalisation turns attention away from the role the government plays in exploitation. If the government is to move beyond a cursory moral battle, it must acknowledge and seek to redress this.