How can criminality infiltrate compliant businesses?

1st July 2021 | Modern slavery

Lysbeth Ford, Senior Partnership Prevention Officer, The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA)

The Clewer Initiative

Labour exploitation is often present in reputable businesses. Lysbeth Ford from GLAA explains how businesses that are reliant on low skilled, migrant agency workers are at particular risk of exploitation within the workforce and what they should look out for.

Is low skilled migrant agency labour essential for your business? If yes, then unfortunately you are at increased risk of exploitation within the workforce.

High risk sectors include agriculture, packhouses, food production, car washes, nail bars, care homes, hospitality, textiles, recycling and the cleaning industry. Where low skilled migrant labour is coupled with the inability to speak the language, the chance of exploitation is even higher. It provides the perfect feeding ground for organised crime groups to exploit very vulnerable individuals.

The reality is that criminality is present in many compliant businesses. These businesses are infiltrated and used as vehicles for exploitation. Everything the worker understands is filtered through a fellow national. Likewise, businesses depend upon the foreign speaker to communicate with the worker because he or she can speak their language.

Debt bondage

The expectation to pay a work finding fee is accepted by workers as normal practice. They are told they can pay off the debt when they start work. However, in reality, the debt never diminishes. Accommodation is promised alongside work but in fact, there is no choice where to live and workers end up paying inflated costs for sub-standard accommodation, and transport to and from work.

Expectation that they must pay extra to get a shift at work or give a bribe to someone to ensure they are kept in work becomes accepted practice.

Warning signs

Victims are threatened, in debt, often mistrustful of authority, and unable to speak the language. These are all key reasons why the crime goes undetected. Refusal to make eye contact, their demeanour, constantly looking to another before answering or letting someone else do all the talking, not bringing much food in for lunch, appearing tired all the time, are all signs that something more serious could be going on.

Direct communication with workers is vital to help detect and eradicate modern slavery. Always use independent interpreters and never be tempted to use friends or people employed alongside the worker. By communicating regularly with your workers, you provide an opportunity for workers to tell you something is wrong. This may not happen immediately, but it is important to give your employees space to speak. How do you know if workers are being paid properly if no one ever asks?

Ignoring the issue

Some employers say, “I don’t know what the problem is? They are here, they are being paid, they don’t give any problems, they can leave if they want to”. This needs to be challenged. Instead, we need to be asking ourselves, “is there any vulnerability here?”

Knowing how people can be exploited and the methodology is the key to unlocking this crime and eradicating criminality in your business.

Exploitation is currently low risk for criminals because workers are reluctant to speak up and it offers huge returns for the exploiters. According to the International Labour Organization, forced labour in the private economy generates $150 billion in illegal profits every year. It is hugely nuanced and sadly an insidious presence in many supply chains. We need to be alive to the issue and start fighting back.

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