Migrant workers coming to Britain after Brexit for temporary jobs in farming, construction and cleaning risk being exploited and falling into modern slavery under UK government plans to minimise labour shortages, according to labour rights experts.
The two schemes – one for migrants from non-European Union nations to work on Britain’s farms for six months and another for workers from “low-risk” countries to stay for a year – could create expendable workforces prey to abuse, campaigners said.
From farms to hotels, European workers are key to the British economy, and the UK government is scrambling to ensure businesses have enough workers to fill the gap once the UK leaves the European Union and free movement of people ends.
While the nature and date of the UK’s exit is up in the air, charities and activists say the interior ministry and anti-slavery agency may struggle to protect migrant workers.
Upfront visa and travel costs under the two schemes could leave short-term migrant workers vulnerable to debt bondage, while a lack of access to public funds could trap them in abusive workplaces, said Focus on Labour Exploitation (Flex).
Without access to housing and unemployment benefits, migrant workers arriving under the schemes could struggle to leave abusive employers, or end up destitute and homeless, increasing their risk of being trafficked, Flex said.
The two schemes could fuel a “continuous churn of low-waged workers with limited access to support or rights,” it said.
The UK government has acknowledged the risk of abuses under the farm scheme – a pilot that will see 2,500 workers from Moldova, Russia and Ukraine arrive in the coming months – but activists said it had not outlined how it would address these concerns.