A strategy for migrant worker welfare

By Adis Sehic and Dora-Olivia Vicol - 25 July 2023

Over the last seven years, it has become increasingly clear to us that migrant workers play a crucial and underappreciated role in the UK’s economy and social fabric. Migrants  make up the majority of workers in the agricultural sector, and play a crucial role in sectors like care, construction, hospitality and services. And yet, too often they are overrepresented in precarious work situations, and underserved by the employment enforcement ecosystem.

Migrant workers deserve better standards and better protection. This is why we are launching an ambitious four-year project to expose the causes of exploitation, and press the government to adopt a much-needed Migrant Worker Welfare Strategy. Read on to learn more about the project’s aims, what to expect from us in the future, and how to support our work.

Why migrant worker exploitation needs addressing now

Despite being at the heart of the UK’s economy, migrant workers are over-represented in precarious jobs. At the soft end of everyday precarity, non-UK nationals are more likely to be employed on precarious zero-hours contracts, and more likely to have non-standard employment arrangements. At the hard end of exploitation, which describes modern slavery, migrant workers also constitute the majority (75%) of referrals to the UK’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which is the framework for identifying potential victims of modern slavery.

The risk of migrant worker exploitation is likely to increase as the government seeks to plug labour gaps with restrictive employer-sponsored visa schemes. If in 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum, the Home Office issued 164,000 Work visas, by 2022 this figure had almost trebled, to 423,000. Notably, a large number of these visas are Seasonal Work and Care visas, where reports of worker exploitation have already started to emerge.

This is a worrying development. As our previous research with Seasonal Agricultural Workers revealed, when your employer is your visa sponsor, speaking up is hard, labour enforcement is slow, and migrant workers are often left with no means for redress. The UK urgently needs a migrant worker welfare strategy that balances the need to address labour shortages, with the need to mitigate the risks of work-based sponsorship.

Exposing exploitation

In order to tackle migrant worker exploitation, we believe we need to document it and expose it first. After all, migrant workers are not inherently vulnerable. Vulnerability is the outcome of particular choices which determine how (in)accessible our employment justice system is, how (in)flexible our immigration system has become after Brexit, and indeed how (in)coherent the UK government’s strategy for supporting migrant workers.

In this research project, we focus our research into exploitation on three levels.

  • At the macro level - we’ll examine the ways in which a hostile immigration framework and a fragmented employment justice system stack the cards against migrant workers. 
  • At the middle levelwe’ll consider the administrative and technical barriers that prevent migrant workers from getting good legal advice and reporting exploitation via the Tribunal system or labour enforcement agencies.
  • At the micro level - we’ll take into account the individual difficulties that make it harder to report exploitation, such as limited English language proficiency, digital exclusion and a lack of trust in institutions (among others). 

It goes without saying that these factors intersect and amplify each other. For instance, being on a short-term seasonal work visa where you can only work for one operator carries a level of risk, but this increases substantially when we take into account the fact that the GLAA, the enforcement agency responsible for investigating labour abuses on farms, is under-resourced. Our methodology is thus not designed to oversimplify exploitation, but to foreground the areas where choices are made, and where change is possible. 

What to expect from the Work Rights Centre

Over the next four years, and thanks to funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, we will be capturing the impact of these drivers of exploitation through a series of publications. In practice, we will look at:

  • The role of immigration controls in creating exploitation
  • The fragmented nature of labour enforcement and the employment justice system
  • The status of migrant workers on particularly restrictive visa schemes
  • The specific reforms, and big picture change, needed to address migrant worker exploitation.

We will ground our policy proposals in the lived experiences of migrant workers, and in the insights of the caseworkers who support them. We will do this by continuing our focus on case monitoring and data collection, which we hope will bring to life both the scale and nature of exploitation that migrant workers in the UK face.

How you can help

There are many ways in which you can support our work and help to amplify the voice and experiences of migrant workers, which we will be highlighting throughout our research. Below are a few examples:

  1. Join our project advisory board - if you are a practitioner, academic, researcher or migrant worker with lived experience of precarious work and would like to lend us your expertise, we would love to hear from you! Please contact us for further information on joining our project advisory board.
  2. Sign up to our newsletter to receive the latest news, updates and publications from our Policy and Research team. You can also read and share our existing research publications.
  3. Follow us on our social media channels, including Twitter and Facebook.


If you can, please consider supporting our team with a donation. Donations help us keep our research independent, and our frontline advice clinic free and accessible to the people who need it most.

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