The Blog

Empower Migrants to Challenge Unscrupulous Employers, Instead of Blaming Them for Undercutting Wages

Only with effective measures in place to reduce exploitation of migrant workers, would debates at the coming general elections about migrant workers and effect of wages would be fair.

This week's news about East European workers who were paid £125 for an 80-hour week, is a painfully familiar story to me. Even the detail that, after deductions for rent and travel, workers only received £25 for the 80-hour week, sounds familiar. The charity that I work for on a part-time basis, East European Advice Centre (EEAC), often encounters migrant workers who are paid similar amounts - approximately £1.50 per hour, in London.

It is estimated that 236,000 people in the UK are paid less than minimum wage, and around 11% are migrant workers. However, the scale of exploitation of migrant workers in the UK is still unknown and much of the evidence on this is hidden (as it happens with human trafficking for example). Certainly, exploitation of migrants happens hundreds of times more than the cases that make the headlines, like the recent one from Rochdale.

The cases of the approximately 150 East European workers that EEAC has assisted with their employment challenges in the past 9 months, provide just a snapshot into the real conditions in which some migrants find themselves, at the hands of unscrupulous employers. Most East Europeans who EEAC have been very brave, by making the first step in approaching us. Being a small charity, we have limited capacity to assist. However, I often wonder: what about those migrant workers who are not in London, or did not hear where to seek help? What about migrants who lack self-confidence to challenge employers or simply do not know the employment legislation, or that they are entitled to earn the national minimum wage?

Decision-makers and all political parties should take more interest in the exploitation of workers, and particularly migrant workers. Discussions about immigration and the labour market have been focused on blaming foreign workers for undercutting wages of natives for too long.

But is not an employer which on purpose chooses to employ an East European, and then pays him or her less than the minimum wage, undercutting wages of other workers? In this instance, is it not that employer the one which is in reality an unfair competitor for other businesses? East Europeans do not want to be paid less than British workers, they do not want to be exploited. When they come to seek help through East European Advice Centre, in most of the cases workers are ready to try the legal avenues to get justice: a complaint to HMRC or a claim to the Employment Tribunal. The hurdles they experience are, however, immense. The bureaucratic and slow process of investigation, the language, the legal jargon and even the cost deter workers to seek justice.

The anti-slavery raid in Rochdale that recently appeared in the news might have been speedy and efficient. However, when the initiative to highlight abuse comes from the migrant, procedures are different.

HMRC is an important organisation as it has the power to fine employers and to make employers pay the workers outstanding wages, as highlighted in its policy on enforcement. However, this enforcement agency takes many months to conclude an investigation, people being told on the phone that it can take up to 9 or 12 months. In this time, the migrant might be left without an income because the employer dismissed him or her. Contrary to what political leaders suggest about benefit abuse from EU migrants, access to welfare now depends on stringent criteria and pass the so-called "habitual residence test". In practice, I noticed that those who are exploited by an employer often have difficulty in proving their employment status by Department for Work and Pensions or local government rules. As an EU national, in order to get Jobseekers Allowance when looking for another job, you need to prove that you have worked, but employers who break national minimum wage legislation rarely agree to offer such proof, or have paid cash in hand. EEAC had a recent case of Bulgarian migrants who were not paid what they were promised, but they could not afford to live in the UK without an income, and had to leave immediately after calling HMRC, not being able to participate in the investigation further. In any case, there is no incentive or support for them to stay so that HMRC could prosecute employers - generally, authorities are pleased to just see the immigrants gone. In another case of a Romanian national that approached us, the employer paid him just enough to eat, deducting most wages for offering accommodation. The migrant remained homeless after he challenged his employer and made a complaint to HMRC. He is not entitled to any welfare support, and the only night shelter he is eligible for is during the Christmas period. HMRC, when called, was not able to provide approximate estimated about the length of the investigations. Even higher fines that we suggested do not help in those cases because workers need to wait many months for the arrears for wages, that the employer owes them.

Employment tribunals are another way to challenge employers which do not pay according to legislation. They are expensive, and it is difficult to ask for a remission of the fee if you are not on benefits. While a hearing interpretation is provided, all previous steps, including preparation of the case and filling in the form cannot be done free of charge in other languages.

These are just some hurdles associated with key players in getting justice for the abuse of migrant workers. There are also gaps related to employment legislation which leave workers with little protection, and zero hour contracts, or agency work are cases in point and have been highlighted in political debates this year.

At this stage, the recognition that migrant workers are exploited and employers should be better sanctioned is a great step forward. Next steps should focus on providing migrants with better, speedier and more transparent access to enforcement agencies and tribunals. Only with effective measures in place to reduce exploitation of migrant workers, would debates at the coming general elections about migrant workers and effect of wages would be fair.