Exclusive: People not trying to claim being trafficked to gain UK asylum, says head of labour abuse authority
The head of Britain’s labour abuse watchdog says her organisation has not seen anyone “gaming” the modern slavery system for immigration purposes.
The comments directly contradict the home secretary, Suella Braverman, who said last week that trafficking claims from “people gaming the system” were “derailing the UK’s policy on illegal migration”.
The chief executive of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, Elysia McCaffrey, said: “We don’t see people gaming the system. That’s not our experience.
“What we see is vulnerable people who are being exploited by opportunists and criminals.”
McCaffrey, who spent her early career fighting asylum cases for the Home Office in court, said that an increase was likely to be due to a better understanding of new laws as well as a growth in awareness and reporting.
Braverman attributed the rise last week to people falsely trying to register as trafficking victims. She said: “The hard truth is that our modern slavery laws are being abused by people gaming the system. We’ve seen a 450% increase in modern slavery claims since 2014.”
An analysis of all modern slavery referrals concluded in the first half of this year showed that 97% of those who claimed to be trafficked were confirmed as genuine by the authorities.
The GLAA, which is funded by the Home Office to investigate labour exploitation, faces new risks in the wake of Brexit.
The watchdog is investigating allegations made in the Guardian that Indonesian workers arriving under the seasonal worker scheme reported shouldering debts of up to £5,000 for one season’s fruit picking.
The government is now discussing expanding the seasonal worker visa, set up in haste to deal with a Brexit-shaped crisis in farm labour, beyond its current limit of 40,000. It has already grown rapidly from its pilot of 2,500 visas in 2019.
The GLAA licenses those using the scheme as well as investigating it. McCaffrey said she felt confident that it could cope with the work at the moment, but she was concerned about “the scale [of the scheme] and keeping people safe”.
The outgoing anti-slavery commissioner, Sara Thornton, who has not been replaced since she left the post in April, has warned that the government needs to deal with the potential for worker abuse before expanding the scheme further.
McCaffrey said businesses relying on overseas labour could better protect those using the visa by funding their travel. Even workers who face no exploitation in the recruitment process can arrive with debts of more than £2,000 to cover the cost of flights and visas for a six-month stay.
“We know if people’s starting point is that they’re in debt, they’re going to have a less positive experience,” McCaffrey said.
“In an ideal world, those who are profiting from people coming here should pick up that bill … They need workers here for their businesses to run, and £1,000 for somebody coming from a long way away when they’re coming to do that kind of job is a huge amount of money for them to find, and it’s probably much less for these big companies to find.”
McCaffrey said she did not think government regulation was needed to do that, but businesses should consider what was the right thing to do.
She says she is kept up at night by the scale of the problem, and wants consumer pressure to force businesses to look after workers better. “If you have people demanding better quality for workers, I think that will start to drive some change,” she said.
Acknowledging that the cost of living was uppermost in people’s minds, she said the public could still play a role in questioning when products or services seem too cheap.
“There are a lot of people who want to go and pay five pounds to get a carwash and think, ‘there were six people washing my car, excellent’. I want to change that mindset so that people are saying: ‘that feels a bit cheap for what I’m buying – and these people don’t look very well cared for, and they’ve not got proper shoes on their feet’.”
She said supermarkets had a big role in driving change in standards for farm workers and that she wanted to see an equivalent to the Red Tractor quality mark for labour standards.
She thinks that consumer pressure could be a powerful way of pushing more fundamental change. “If you look at when the Red Tractor went on to meat, people cared about animal welfare and where their meat came from … how do we get people really thinking about the people behind the label, the people in the care homes, the people in the carwashes?”
The GLAA was set up in 2005 after the Morecambe Bay cockle-picking disaster to prevent the exploitation of workers in the fresh produce sector. Its remit was expanded in 2017 to prevent and detect worker abuse across the entire economy.
Despite this huge job, its budget of just over £7m is less than the Home Office spends on stationery and publications and has shrunk by £300,000 in the past five years, before inflation.
McCaffrey admits it is “really hard” to do her job on such a tight budget, acknowledging: “We have been quite stretched.”
Just 12 inspections of its more than 1,000 licence holders to check for compliance had been completed by August this year, and its social media warns licence applicants to expect delays while they complete checks.
But McCaffrey says that by working with other organisations, such as the police and HMRC, “we punch above our weight”.
She added: “It’s problematic that we don’t have as much money as we’d like to have to operate. But I’m convinced that we’re still doing the best job that we can and that we’re still making a difference for people.”