Brexit risks exploitation of UK workers through loss of legal protections, new report finds

A new report by anti-slavery experts today warns that UK workers’ rights could be at risk due to changes in the UK’s legal framework post-Brexit, with workers facing higher levels of vulnerability due to the socio-economic impact of COVID-19.

The report, by the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham – home to the world’s leading modern slavery experts – provides key insights into the impact of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union on the UK’s broader anti-slavery legal framework.

In December 2019, the provisions in the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill which sought to protect workers’ rights through certain procedural safeguards, were removed. Nottingham’s Rights Lab recommends that these provisions are instead preserved and strengthened – and are especially important in limiting the potential negative impact of COVID-19 on the labour market.

Nine1 key EU Directives ensure protection for workers’ rights in EU Member States which are mirrored in the UK. If the UK’s domestic provisions are weakened, the Rights Lab has highlighted that some of the most vulnerable people in the workforce could be at risk of exploitation, such as; part-time, casual, agency, seasonal and migrant workers.

One of the key directives the UK stands to lose, which many workers may take for granted, is the Working Time Directive, which limits the working week to 48 hours for people over the age of 18 and guarantees rest periods for all workers.

The report recognises that while the Modern Slavery Act 2015 is at the core of the UK’s legislative efforts to tackle modern slavery, the evolution of the UK’s domestic legal framework has been strengthened by the influence of EU law.

The UK’s efforts to tackle modern slavery necessarily include legal protections that prevent exploitation. This Report highlights the important role that Parliament has to play in protecting workers rights and preventing modern slavery, and how that role has changed following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

Arianne Griffith, Senior Research and Policy Fellow in the Rights Lab said: “The workforce in the UK enjoys the benefit of a number of labour rights standards that derive from EU law and form important protections for workers, particularly for the most vulnerable ones such as seasonal, agency, casual and migrant workers. However, the UK’s approach for ensuring adequate protection of workers’ rights post-Brexit is not yet clear and existing challenges for these groups of workers have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 are disproportionately affecting populations with existing vulnerabilities including those in situations of poverty and insecure employment. These are the same groups which ordinarily face higher risks of exploitation in the labour market.

She continued: “We need a firm commitment from the Government that it will preserve and strengthen existing labour rights protections. These legal protections, form an important safeguard against exploitation that – especially in light of the impact of COVID-19 – we simply cannot afford to lose.”

Baroness Young of Hornsey is set to chair a briefing event on Monday 6 July for parliamentarians on the report.

The research comes as the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) recently reported a decrease in the number of cases for the first quarter of 2020, after record highs in 2019 which saw a 52% increase in the number of modern slavery cases from the year before .

The Rights Lab report notes that in the UK and around the world, the Coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable populations. It says that the impacts of the pandemic, including a sharp rise in unemployment, will exacerbate existing vulnerabilities in at-risk communities and may lead to another increase in the number of victims of modern slavery.

The report also stresses that COVID-19 has quickly evolved from a global health crisis into a socio-economic and human rights crisis, adding a further layer of complexity to efforts to combat modern slavery, labour exploitation and other abuses.

In addition, with forecasts of a national and global economic downturn, significant changes are expected in the labour market as economies gradually re-open. In particular, a contracting economy, widespread job losses, the risk of oversupply of labour, changing demands in the labour market and serious health risks and limitations on movement as a result of the pandemic may lead to higher levels of vulnerability, creating additional risks in the labour market.

Frank Hanson, Head of Prevention at Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, said: “We are constantly monitoring changes to the labour market and putting plans in place as an organisation to prevent unscrupulous employers from exploiting their workers.

“In particular, we are aware of the potential for labour shortages in certain sectors if workers are unable to travel as freely as they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. This could encourage opportunistic criminals to exploit their workers if we do not take proactive steps to tackle this behaviour and uphold the rights of vulnerable workers.”

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