Report: The systemic drivers of migrant worker exploitation in the UK

By Evie Breese - 14 November 2023

In 2022, the Home Office issued over 236,000 employer-sponsored visas. This is a visa category that only allows migrant workers to come to the UK if they have a job offer from a business licensed by the Home Office, and prevents them from working anywhere but for the business that sponsored them. 

Migrant workers sponsored this way make a crucial contribution to sectors like the NHS and care, at a time when the UK is struggling with labour shortages, and public services are under pressure. And yet, despite their role in the British economy and social fabric, they face the serious risk of exploitation. 

Drawing on over 40 case studies, interviews with caseworkers, and policy analysis, our report finds that migrant labour exploitation risks turning into a national crisis, unless changes are urgently made to the immigration and labour enforcement system.

What we found

Vulnerable migrants are being forced by their sponsors to accept exploitative work conditions due to the short time frame, high cost, and administrative difficulty involved in changing jobs. With just 60 days to change sponsors and obtain a new visa, many are reluctant to report exploitation for fear that doing so will lead to their visas being cancelled. This allows unscrupulous employers to operate with impunity, comfortable in the knowledge that the Home Office is unlikely to ever investigate. 

The number of businesses licensed to sponsor migrant workers has more than doubled over the past three years, but the Home Office appears unlikely to provide the oversight needed to regulate them. Our analysis of Home Office data obtained through a Freedom of Information Request (FOI) found that, at most, the Home Office pays a compliance visit to just one in every 22 registered sponsors (Tier 2). This leaves some businesses feeling like they can act with impunity, in the knowledge that migrant workers have few avenues to report mistreatment or breaches in employment law.   

The risks derived from the employer-sponsored visa system are also amplified by the UK’s severely under-resourced and fragmented labour enforcement system. Divided across a complex web of agencies, with unclear and overlapping remits, and just a fraction of the number of labour inspectors recommended by the International Labour Organisation, the UK’s labour enforcement system is poorly equipped to identify and support the needs of migrant workers.

Our recommendations

To mitigate the risks identified here, in this publication we call on the government to:

  • Reform the Immigration system to end employer-sponsored visas, giving migrant workers and businesses the flexibility they need.
  • Strengthen protections for workers, including by introducing a well-resourced Single Enforcement Body with a data sharing firewall between labour and immigration enforcement.
  • Appoint a Migrant Commissioner to lead on the development of a Migrant Worker Welfare Strategy, and coordinate efforts to identify and mitigate the risk of migrant worker exploitation in the long-term.

You can download the report here. This is the first in a series of publications from the Work Rights Centre, that seeks to create a Migrant Worker Welfare Strategy for Britain. To receive future reports, sign up to our newsletter. For press and media enquiries, contact our senior communications officer Evie Breese

To support the Work Rights Centre in our efforts to assist migrant workers please consider making a donation and following us on social media.

← News