Status matters? Forced labour and immigration policy

Guest contributor: Dr Lisa Scullion is a research fellow at Salford Housing & Urban Studies Unit (SHUSU) College of Science & Technology,  University of Salford Salford, Greater Manchester.

In a world characterised by global mobility and increasing economic and forced migration, the UK is home to a diverse range of migrant communities.

Many migrants work on the fringes of low-paid employment sectors under poor conditions. Under these circumstances, immigration policy and insecure immigration status can provide an environment conducive to exploitation by employers.

Professor Peter Dwyer and Dr Lisa Scullion, at the UniversityofSalford, and Drs Louise Waite and Hannah Lewis, at the Universityof Leeds, have been exploring the link between immigration status and vulnerability to forced labour in theUK.

The project was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) as part of their programme of work entitled Forced labour: contemporary slavery in the UK which aims to reduce forced labour in the UK and support its victims.

Our working definition of forced labour draws from the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention on Forced Labour (1930) that defines forced and compulsory labour as ‘all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily’. The specific remit of the project was to investigate the links between immigration status and forced labour, in particular to explore how socio-legal status (i.e. specific rights to residence, work and social welfare) impact on risk of forced labour among migrants in the UK.

Immigration policy and forced labour

We highlight that current immigration policy promotes and structures a complex ‘tiering of entitlement’ within the general population of migrants resident in the UK. Consequently, varied rights to live, work and access welfare benefits and services accrue to different migrants, depending upon their particular immigration status. This limits the options of many migrants looking to meet their basic needs and can render migrants who have few other choices susceptible to forced labour.

New arrivals

Alongside socio-legal status the report found that being new to the UK and from a different cultural background may also be factors that precipitate some migrants’ entry into forced labour, and, also close down means of exiting from it.


In addition, poverty and other imperatives to migrate may render migrants vulnerable to exploitation and more prepared to use ‘risky’ migration strategies. Migrants are therefore particularly susceptible to forced labour where constrained rights and entitlements in the host country combine with pre-existing vulnerabilities arising from the situation in their country of origin and/or how they enter the UK.


We also highlight a range of recommendations to tackle the situation, including immigration policy solutions, such as temporary immigration status protection for those escaping forced labour; increased sanctioning of employers; and improving migrants’ access to information and their ability to exercise rights. The full report can be found on the JRF website:

Forced labour amongst refugees and asylum seekers

Following on from this, Peter, Louise and Hannah are currently working on an 18 month research project called Precarious Lives funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The study will gain an in-depth understanding of the experiences of forced and exploitative labour among asylum seekers and refugees living in England.

We are also considering a range of experiences which, while not strictly forced, are nevertheless not ‘freely entered into’. People seeking asylum are normally prohibited from working. However, limited or non-existent welfare entitlements and pressures to earn money to pay off debts or support family may push asylum seekers into the shadow economy.

Refugees who may have had long periods out of work while their asylum case was considered are also vulnerable to labour exploitation. There is anecdotal evidence that refugees and asylum seekers are drawn into exploitative and possibly forced labour. However, there is no systematic research documenting asylum seekers’ and refugees’ experiences of forced labour in England and the reasons why they are drawn into it – this study will therefore provide this much needed data. You can read more about the project at:

About jcwi

Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is a key campaigning voice in the field of immigration, asylum and nationality law and policy. It is completely independent from government funding, remaining entirely free from government influence. View all posts by jcwi

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