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UK employment market a magnet for forced labour, report warns

The UK employment market is "highly susceptible" to exploitation and forced labour, a report has warned.

The report, published today by Queen's University Belfast's School of Law and commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, calls on the Government to address the issue of forced labour in its forthcoming Modern Slavery Bill.

It claims the structure of the UK economy, through "light touch" regulation of business and a heavy hand on immigration, creates a segment of the workforce, paid at or near the national minimum wage, which is susceptible to forced labour.

The study looks at how businesses profit from forced labour. This is where workers are forced to work against their will and face penalties, ranging from job or rights loss, if they refuse to co-operate.

The UK's high percentage of agency and self-employed workers on or near the minimum wage, the highest in the EU, creates a pool of people who are vulnerable to forced labour, the report claims.

Modern slavery

The Government is due to introduce a Modern Slavery Bill in 2014. It will aim to consolidate into a single act the offences that are used to prosecute today's 'slave drivers'.

Professor Jean Allain from the School of Law said: "While a great deal of attention has rightly been paid to the experiences of victims, very little consideration has been given to how people actually make money using forced labour.

"This understanding of the business dynamics of forced labour is crucial if we are going to try and end such exploitation."

The study found businesses often use forced labour to profit, by minimising costs as a result of offering minimal pay and failing to provide basic entitlements such as pensions or sick pay.

They can also generate revenue by charging workers for additional services, including visas, travel expenses, accommodation or transport to and from the workplace, the report said.

Allain added: "Forced labour in supply chains of UK businesses is something that policy makers must address and the upcoming Modern Slavery Bill is the ideal opportunity to do so.

Vulnerability to forced labour

The study claimed the UK economy has a number of factors, which can lead to forced labour. These include:

  • 'Light touch' business regulations, allowing limited rights for workers
  • Policies around work and immigration which exclude people from working in the formal sector
  • Allowing sectors of the economy to self-regulate
  • The lack of enforcement of labour standards which creates a sense of impunity for employers