A new research report explores the experiences of migrant workers in low-paid and insecure work during the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK. The report, focusing on barriers to accessing employment rights and social protections, and the associated risks of labour abuse and exploitation, is the result of a partnership between our member FLEX, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW).
The research, which surveyed 337 IWGB and UVW members, found that the key employment issues experienced were not being paid wages owed (44% of participants), being exposed to Covid-19 through work (17%), being asked to work in ways that felt dangerous, including with poor social distancing or without Personal Protective Equipment (12%), and being forced to work despite being ill (8%). There were also significant levels of redundancy (33%), excessive workload (11% saw an unpaid increase in their workload) and an increase in cases of sexual harassment, as employers exploited power imbalances heightened by the pandemic.
The report also finds significant barriers to accessing social security measures like furlough, Statutory Sick Pay and Universal Credit, due in part to the way these measures are designed and, for some groups of migrants, being barred from accessing support due to immigration restrictions. When social security is not available, accessible, or enough to cover the cost of living, people become more dependent on their jobs and less able to push back against poor treatment. This report provides a basis for understanding why a well-functioning social security system is crucial for preventing labour exploitation and outlines key changes needed to ensure the UK’s social safety net does not fail the growing number of people in low-paid and insecure work.
According FLEX, the report’s findings are especially important in the current context where the pandemic has led to a surge in the number of people in need of welfare support, and where Brexit has led to a seismic overhaul of the UK’s immigration system, increasing the number of migrants with no or limited access to social security. “A commitment to ‘build back better’ and achieve a fairer post-Covid-19 recovery is to acknowledge and recognise the fact that low-pay, insecurity, and lack of access to social security are not issues exclusive to the Covid-19 context, but already existed and will continue to exist unless we see important changes to labour market, immigration, and social security policies. Addressing these issues will also help build resilience to labour exploitation and support the UK’s commitment to tackling modern slavery. The report outlines recommendations as a starting point for government to take steps in this direction”.