Why are slaves being arrested while traffickers are just fined?
The Government has this morning released details of a month-old crackdown on alleged illegal working in nail bars, part of the year old Operation Magnify. The actual operation took place at the end of last month, and resulted in 97 people being held, and dozens of businesses warned they could face fines for trafficking and modern slavery.
But why are the victims being arrested while their traffickers and exploiters are only facing fines? This is what happens when you see trafficking as a migration issue, instead of an example of exploitation of workers.
The TUC does welcome the Government’s increasingly tough line on modern slavery and trafficking. The UK was the third country to ratify the ILO’s latest forced labour protocol. The Modern Slavery Act is the first national legislation (although we were copying Californian state law) to introduce a Transparency in Supply Chains clause to emphasise the responsibilities of employers (but not enforce them.) And we’re glad the government is at last extending the old Gangmasters Licensing Authority’s scope beyond a few narrow industries, although we wish it had the tools it needs to do its job.
Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill MP said of the latest news:
“This operation sends a strong message to those employers who ruthlessly seek to exploit vulnerable people and wilfully abuse our immigration laws. Modern slavery is a barbaric crime which destroys the lives of some of the most vulnerable in our society. This Government has taken world-leading action to tackle it by introducing the Modern Slavery Act, giving law enforcement agencies the tools they need and increasing support and protection for victims.
“At the same time, we have also introduced strong measures through the Immigration Act to tackle illegal working, including making it easier to prosecute employers who repeatedly break the rules and creating the power to temporarily close businesses that do not comply with the law.”
And yet… this exercise has led to the arrest of 97 people – mostly Vietnamese but also people from China, Ghana, India, Mongolia, Nigeria and Pakistan. Officers also issued notices to 68 businesses warning them they may be liable for financial penalties of up to £20,000 per illegal worker found if they cannot provide evidence that appropriate right to work document checks were carried out. That level of fines is considerably less than you can be fined for fly-tipping (the maximum fine is £50,000)!
Some modern slavery victims who are found to have been trafficked are offered support through the National Referral Mechanism (just 14 of the 97 people arrested in this case were referred, which seems very low.) But often that simply returns people to the country they were trafficked from in the first place, where they are plunged back into poverty and debt, which could lead to them being trafficked again. This is especially common in the case of Vietnam where most of the victims in Operation Magnify came from.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady commented:
“We’re glad to see the government cracking down on the worst forms of exploitation, but victims of trafficking should be freed, not arrested, and the fines for trafficking should be much tougher than fines for fly tipping! We want bad bosses arrested and fines raised so they are a genuine deterrent. Unions and victims of modern slavery should be helped and encouraged to blow the whistle on exploitation.”
What we need is a system that concentrates on punishing the traffickers, and encourages their victims to come forward and demand their rights, rather than criminalising them first and the traffickers second. And unions need to be given a stronger role in this process, including support from the government to identify and assist victims, and a role in enforcement, for example through the new Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority.