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Visa regime driving exploitation: long read

 

Multiple industries in the UK are fuelled by the superexploitation of migrant workers. Access to rights and protections for migrants has been drastically diminished since the UK government’s introduction of the ‘hostile environment’ policies in 2012 which sought to make the UK unliveable for what they called ‘illegal immigrants’. This article attempts to document the stories of undercover workers linked to the UK garment industry, reported to Labour Behind the Label. Sold fraudulent visas, and exploited through their precarious migration status, many students, care workers and others face huge barriers to their rights, through being forced into invisible and informal work.

 

Interviews thanks to Kaenat Issufo.
Text by Susy Williams
Published 7 March, 2024

 

Superexploitation describes exploitation that goes beyond the appropriation of surplus (productive) labour to include (reproductive) labour that is necessary for survival and is characteristic of low-wage, physically exhausting and often dangerous work. In several industries in the UK, superexploitation is largely driven by restrictive, racist border policies which prevent migrants from accessing full worker rights and protections.

The Hostile Environment

From agriculture to logistics, poor working conditions have been continuously perpetuated under the hostile environment, because businesses know that they can benefit from a workforce of migrant workers who are effectively pushed ‘underground’ by restrictions on the right to work, and how many hours and/or where migrant workers are permitted to work. Businesses know that they can exploit these workers precisely because they rely upon informal labour markets to such a high degree: This work is crucial to many migrants in the UK, because they can face various barriers – such as xenophobia, language differences and lack of or unrecognised qualifications and/or visa restrictions – in accessing other labour markets. Businesses paying less than the National Minimum Wage, not giving sick or holiday leave, not allowing breaks or safe working conditions and utilising informalisation to create precarious work – such as zero hours or short-term contracts – increases their profits, at the cost of these workers. Businesses, backed by state policy, know they can superexploit migrant labour to their own advantage – and they do.

On top of this, migrant workers in the UK have often felt unable to raise the exploitation they face in the workplace due to there being close connections between labour and immigration enforcement. Workers are afraid of whistleblowing for several reasons, primarily the risk of losing work that they rely upon and the fear of deportation. Even when working legally, there are many obstacles to understanding the oftentimes complex and obfuscated rules and regulations attached to visas, alongside the inaccessibility of attaining legal support and information about what rights migrant workers are entitled to. As is explored further in garment worker stories below, this means workers feel they cannot speak out and vicious, renewed cycles of racialised and colonial exploitation repeat. Because workers fear speaking out and they do not know where they can seek help, businesses can get away with increasing informalisation whilst suppressing payment, security and fair treatment.

Whilst businesses utilise systems of inequality for profit, states actually play the most significant role in creating this fear of speaking out and the conditions for labour exploitation to occur under. In the UK, the government introduced the first privatised company tied visas in 2012 which prevents overseas domestic workers from changing the employer they arrived with if they want to remain ‘legal’ under immigration rules. UK law therefore also stops migrant domestic workers on these visas from leaving employers that abuse and exploit them. These rules and regulations around tied visas have been shown to make workers more vulnerable to modern slavery.

Driven underground by the UK’s border policy

In a similar vein, depending on the type of visa, international students are either not permitted to work legally or can work up to a maximum of 20 hours a week, or 10 hours a week for English language course students, during term time, and full-time outside of term. There are also restrictions on the type of work that international students can do which pushes them into lower-paid and precarious job sectors. The restrictions mean that some international students must seek work outside what is stipulated within their visa in order to get by. The work they find is within labour markets that are less regulated and more hidden (therefore more easily exploited) and it again points to how the UK government’s bordering system drives migrant workers underground and into dangerous working conditions, including those of modern slavery.

Additionally, the UK Home Office has the power to revoke sponsorship visa licenses which means that everyone sponsored by a particular visa would become ineligible and there would be an influx of undocumented workers. The government only allows workers 60 days to find another sponsor, which creates massive and widespread vulnerability to exploitation through a system which punishes whistleblowers: If these workers whisteblow on their employer, they lose their visa as their right to be on the UK is conditioned on being employed by that specific employer. Yet, they have very little time to seek another employer before they could be deported, so many are of course afraid to speak out about what is happening.

This isn’t even taking into account that people who are pushed into underground work already feel they are doing something wrong and this is what they are also told by their employer. Consequently, they are doubly afraid – of whistleblowing, but also seeking out advice from lawyers, the government and organisations who could support them – and become trapped. Below, worker stories from the garment sector are highlighted as one example of several industries which superexploit migrant labour, where businesses are drawing upon an increasingly hostile environment in the UK for migrant workers to make ever greater profits.

UK garment makers are from migrant communities and face many challenges when first seeking employment in the UK.

The UK garment industry has an established pattern of reliance upon the exploitation of migrant workers, which has endured since at least the 1970s-80s, continuing today. Additionally, increased precarity, informalisation and invisibilisation has allowed for a global devaluing of migrant garment manufacturing labour, predominantly done by women workers. Through LBL’s community engagement project, garment workers have been sharing their experiences about working in garment factories in the UK. This project has made clear that exploitation in the UK garment industry does not start and end within factory walls but originates much earlier than that and reverberates throughout and following garment makers’ lifetimes – onto their children and generations after, in a way that is characteristic of how migrant workers and communities are treated (and excluded) within the UK.

LBL interviews with garment makers in Leicester have highlighted that exploitation has already begun, in many cases, before workers even migrate to the UK; when seeking visas. Two key themes around visa issues emerged in worker stories:

1. Some garment workers are being sold student visas to travel to the UK, who arrive to find their hours are capped at 20 per week and so, struggling to get by, turn to work in garment factories.
2. There are multiple garment workers who have been sold fraudulent visas to travel to the UK for work in different industries, who arrive to find the work agency does not exist and they cannot work legally.

Worker stories are shared here because, as one of the workers experiencing difficulties when arriving in the UK on a student visa stated, “the world needs to know”. This worker explained they felt that, “in the 21st century and being in UK, these sorts of things should not happen with anyone. It is quite surprising to me how similar the situations that workers faces here in UK and countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is the same type of exploitation. I think it is worse in UK as it is not spoken or highlighted much.” A worker on a fraudulent care visa similarly wanted their story to be shared, saying that, “People should raise these issues as it would save many from falling into this trap… It should be a social issue, awareness raising, not just in the UK but outside, for those people who are unaware”.

Student Worker Stories

There are several examples of young people who have come to the UK as a student who are trying to financially support their families in their home countries while studying full time. Yet, student visas for the UK stipulate that, legally, students can only work for 20 hours per week which is almost enough to cover rent and food, but not student fees and loans taken out to afford travel and travel documents. This is within the context of a wider problem of the UK being hostile towards migrants, including international students who must pay double the fees as ‘home students’, have severe restrictions on bringing family members with them to the UK and face higher surveillance measures compared with home students. Many of the students LBL spoke with have travelled from India, where income is much lower than in the UK, and their families remaining in India have had high hopes of gaining sufficient funds to support themselves. As a result of the precarious financial and pressurised familial (often debt-related) situations they find themselves in, students have found work in garment factories where they could increase their working hours through cash in hand, allowing them to survive in the UK and try to pay off their debts, with the hope of eventually sending money back to their families.

One student LBL spoke with explained that, as the oldest child, they were expected to take on responsibilities and help their family become financially stable for a “better future”. When seeking advice on how to do this, a visa agency said the only way was through a student visa. Yet, upon arriving in the UK, the student found that their working hours were capped to 20 per week which only amounted to £800 each month; not enough to cover the costs of university. Other student garment workers confirmed this experience of being sold expensive student visas through agencies abroad, with the promise of finding wealth in the UK. Indeed, several students reported that agencies go so far as to show pictures and stories of previous students travelling to the UK who now have luxury lives in their home country, or are settled in the UK. The students are simultaneously not made aware of the high costs of living in the UK nor the work restrictions in place on their visa which will not allow them to earn enough to live and repay the debts incurred to the agency. 

Students have been left stuck by this. One student said they are “struggling a lot. My agent in India promised me many things and he charged a lot of money… Unfortunately, all his promises were fake and I had to live in horrible conditions here”. Another student highlighted that “there are specific people hired in the community who search and trap young people to apply for student visas and study abroad”. Prior to entering the UK, many had limited access to information surrounding the rules and regulations of the visa, but were sold it as a way to gain a “better life”. Some students said they had not had an education but were frauded certifications by visa agencies, allowing them to study at UK universities – which means they now struggle in terms of finding work and money, but also with adjusting to studying.

“My agent in India promised me many things and he charged a lot of money… Unfortunately, all his promises were fake and I had to live in horrible conditions here.”

“No one wants to employ international students.”

Yet, the institutional racism of the UK is actually at the core of this: Agents indeed use the student visa as a way to financially exploit people, however, the stringent measures on where international students can work and for how long, on top of the extremely inflated university fees and debts they incur to travel to the UK all uphold this exploitation and inequality. Further, many of the students interviewed by LBL said they cannot secure 20 hours of legal work in the UK because “no one wants to employ international students”. This also traces back to institutional and top-down racism and xenophobia, perpetuated by the government’s bordering system alongside many other racist policies.

One student worker described how they had thought of the UK as a “land of opportunities”, so an uncle had supported the family to get a student visa by providing a loan and allowing this student to stay in his house in the UK. Yet, when the cost of living started to rise, they had to begin helping their uncle with bills and rent, as well as start repaying their debt in order to avoid a family dispute. After struggling to secure work, and finding that British students were getting hired over non-British students for work paid at the National Minimum Wage or above, this student turned to garment factories out of necessity; to support themself and repay their debts.

Those who do manage to find 20 hours of work per week as stipulated by the student visa still found they had few alternatives but to urgently seek more hours to get by – and this is offered by garment factories. Some student garment makers have reported to be legally working 20 hours a week while studying at university, to then undertake work in garment factories all weekends for 12 hours. This means they work full-time hours alongside their full-time studies – and over half of those hours are not paid at the National Minimum Wage rate. One student noted that “I am having to do more hours because of not being paid legal wage”. As a result, despite working throughout all hours of the week, student garment workers continue to struggle in poor living and working conditions, and balance paying off their debts. It is common for student garment workers to be unable to afford food, they will walk long distances due to having no money for travel, and live in unsafe conditions and damp, cold and unclean accommodation. Many garment workers, not just students, have reported sharing a room with five or more people in cramped conditions.

These stories reinforce that the beginnings and continuations of exploitation of migrant workers in the UK is not simply within garment factories but has already taken shape when being restricted in accessing other workplaces that are more secure, safe and better-paid – simply for being an international student. Similarly, the want for a “better future” highlights existing inequalities and extractive, exploitative relationships between countries in the Global North and the Global South. The UK relies upon and upholds this kind of structural exploitation in order for its industries, such as garment production, to function – whether UK brands base their factories in the Global North or the Global South, they continue to exploit racialised and migratised people from the Global South. The stories also make clear that what these workers are experiencing is trafficking and extreme levels of exploitation – including modern slavery – because they are being tricked and frauded into a situation where they are trapped and forced to work under inhumane, illegal and unacceptable conditions.

Unable to speak out due to migration status

Further, the level of reliance on work in garment factories for migrant workers in Leicester leads to increased risk of exploitation: Many UK garment workers have reported poor treatment in factories but are “very afraid to speak out”. This includes being unable to claim National Minimum Wage and other worker rights, such as holiday and sick pay, as they are told by their supervisors that many people are seeking work and if they don’t want to work under these conditions, they can just leave. They are also threatened with being ‘blacklisted’, where they will not get hired in another factory if they are a “troublemaker”. Another threat comes from factories closing down – workers are told if they whistle blow about conditions and treatment in factories, more will close and they will be out of work. These factors lead to student garment workers reporting to be “happy to stay quiet and not speak out even though [they] can” and saying they “had no option but to accept and be employed”. Such fear of losing work above all else was not just reported by student workers, but for all UK garment makers that LBL has spoken with so far.

There were also stories of workers who had come to the UK with a student visa, but had been victim to trafficking and modern slavery such that their documents and passports were taken from them by those who brought them (along with any earnings) and they were trapped working for no money. One worker managed to escape this situation and found work in a garment factory – without any documentation or National Insurance card, they could not find work elsewhere – and they were paid a lot lower than National Minimum Wage. At the time of speaking with LBL, they had been secretly working in garment factories in Leicester for 15 years. They were finally able to get their documents and passport back after threatening to go to the police, and were hopeful the Home Office would grant them indefinite leave to remain. They said that they enjoyed working in the garment industry but wanted to “claim worker rights and get paid National Minimum Wage”.

Fraudulent Care Visas

Other garment makers have reported being sold fraudulent visas and found they are unable to work legally in the UK. Many who experienced this say they were advertised work visas with care and hospitality agencies but, upon arrival in the UK, have realised the agencies don’t exist and are forced to seek work in hidden places where they are paid below National Minimum Wage cash in hand, such as in garment factories and takeaway shops. Agents promoting and supporting this scheme are not only based in the home countries of these workers but also in the UK. As was similarly reported by student garment workers, people are sold a dream of “settling in the UK or America” which are portrayed as “developed and powerful” and where “the currency holds value… compared to what we earn in India”. So, people take the opportunity for what they are told will be a transformation of their life when it is offered by these agents and enabled by the UK Home Office tied visa schemes.

Workers described how agents explained the visa process to them in a way that “seemed straightforward”. The story goes; due to Brexit, the UK is struggling to find workers, especially in the care sector. Therefore, the UK are giving visas and all that’s needed is an application – once you have the visa you can travel and work for the agency and, when it expires, you can reapply or come back. Agents have added details to reassure workers, such as to recontact them to issue another visa when the first one has expired. For one worker, this made them feel the process was “genuine and legal” when they had “heard so many stories about people going to the UK and being trapped there and that is why [they] did not want to take any chance of coming illegally”.

Yet, this worker did become trapped; they had sold their belongings and borrowed a lot of money from various people. Those who lent money had done so because they “trusted that [they] have a work visa, what could go wrong”. However, “after a long struggle” of finally coming to the UK where the visa agent had said they would get in touch and provide an address for the care agency, this worker waited for weeks without receiving a call. After several attempts of calling the visa agent, the worker finally got through and was given an address of where to go, but the location was not a care agency, it was a residential home. This was not somewhere the worker could find a job even if they wanted to, seeing as their visa would only allow them to be employed by one specific care agency (that was nowhere to be found).

“I am not the only one who has been trapped, there are many like me.”

This situation is not uncommon – “I am not the only one who has been trapped, there are many like me” – and similar stories were told by other garment workers on these tied care visas. When workers chase visa agents about the non-existent care agencies in the UK, there are many prepared excuses which go back and forth for weeks: Either the worker is blamed for not looking properly in this new country they are not used to or, whenever able to make contact by phone, visa agents say they are not able to hear properly or the network is down, due to being in a different city, and disconnect the phone. Even when asking friends in their home country to speak face-to-face with visa agents to find a resolution, workers in the UK do not receive any support since agents can easily ignore their demands.

Family ties

Stories from workers – both students and those on tied visas – also showed that extended family members, who are already settled in the UK, are often those recruiting workers to come to the UK and charge a lot of money to assist the process including with visas, documents and accommodation. Oftentimes, these family members are also the ones who subsequently suggest working in a garment factory to support with bills and debt repayments once they reach the UK and cannot find work elsewhere. Upon reflection of their situation, one garment worker realised that they had been scammed into the situation through a woman already settled in the UK, who was from the same town as them and had contacted their aunty. They said,

“I feel this a racket where people are being trapped for money. It is a chain where they find those who might be interested and extract money from them and trap them in the UK. It is a money-making scheme for those who are in this chain. It is financial exploitation and a clear case of trafficking. Migrants are treated unfairly in the UK. The government is not bothered what happens to us after we are here. The home office makes a lot of money in fraud visas and immigration politics.”

Home Office role

As this worker highlights, whilst agents certainly take advantage of, and exploit people through, tied visa schemes, it is not the agents who are perpetuating them. The UK Home Office plays a foundational role in facilitating these tied visa regimes that end up trapping people. ‘Tied visa’ regimes are labour migration policies that condition migrants’ visas on employment with a particular employer, thereby restricting their access to the labour market. This means that, even when functioning in accordance with government policy, and not subject to fraud, the tied visa scheme is exploitative by its very nature: Due to tying workers to a singular boss, the balance of power becomes even more disproportionately skewed against the worker than in ordinary labour relations, as they cannot easily leave their employer, including in situations where the worker faces abuse. Hence, even if the Home Office did vet agencies, and all was functioning in accordance with the law, exploitation is baked into its very design.

On top of what is already an inherently exploitative scheme set up, the failure to vet agencies further harms workers. Tied visas in the UK are organised by the Home Office and encourage people, such as the garment workers LBL spoke with, to journey to the UK and, in the process, rack up severe debts through having to pay visa and other travel document fees. Despite it being the responsibility of the Home Office to vet the agencies that condition migrant labour through tied visas, when workers on these visas face difficulties, including finding that the agency they are tied to doesn’t exist, they are given no support from the government. On the contrary, they are only met with the threat of deportation if they do raise the issue because they are considered an ‘overstayer’. The blame and risk is put onto those who have migrated and been subject to fraud, rather than on government negligence, and the exploitative nature of the scheme combined with the failure to thoroughly vet agencies. The government also fails to recognise that these workers are victims of human trafficking and modern slavery who they have a duty to support and accommodate. The government’s response emphasises the hostile environment in which UK migration policies are formed and the extractive, exploitative inequalities between the Global North and Global South that are upheld for profit.

Many of the workers who travelled to the UK to work in the care sector have been failed by the Home Office in several additional ways: They are pushed into precarious and low-paid work they never intended to be in, like takeaway shops or garment factories, which many workers said they still don’t want to work in but have no other choice. Further, once they have arrived in the UK and found that the care agency they had placed all hopes onto doesn’t exist – and with little access to information about what to do next, where else they could work, or even who to seek advice and help from – they are left with no alternative other than to seek illegal, cash in hand and off the record work. This kind of work, of course, is far more susceptible to exploitation and is imminently paid far below the National Minimum Wage because it is pushed underground, therefore invisibilised and informalised, and which brands can capitalise on.

Risk of deportation

A core and perhaps obvious part of the problem is that worker voices are suppressed through fear of deportation and legal action: “No one wants to come forward as there is always risk of deportation. We come with heavy debts and family responsibilities”. As these visas only allow workers to be employed by specific agencies, they don’t know what to do when they arrive in the UK as they are “told not to tell anyone”, that “if [they] ask, someone will tell officers”, and they are “always afraid of police … deporting” them. Interviewees highlighted that if they were to be deported, it would be “very shameful” such that they and their families would be taunted every day. On top of these already great risks, one worker pointed out that “when you do not even know what your rights are, it becomes difficult to face this” and, because workers “feel [they are] illegal in this country”, they do not know where they can go for help. Another worker described seeking help from a solicitor and being shocked when they were told a price simply to discuss and help them to understand their case: “I have no money to give them… I cannot afford to spend any more in visa issues”.

A less visible but significant aspect is that many workers also do not tell their family or community what has happened to them because of the guilt and shame they feel around being tricked and owing many debts. For many, their families have supported with funding their visas, also getting into debt, so expect to receive financial support from those who have moved to the UK in order to pay this off. Consequently, garment makers with fraudulent visas pretend everything is fine because they are working; they don’t want to admit they have been a victim of fraud. As one worker highlighted, “that’s why desperately I am looking for any sort of work I get, even if I am exploited… Once I stop sending money back home, is when I will be in trouble”.

Workers repeatedly mentioned the burden of debts attached to the tied visa scheme – even getting a passport to travel to the UK requires such a high level of work and money, and then there is a whole raft of paperwork that comes afterwards. Agents charge an extortionate and inflated rate for all these documents and when workers arrive in the UK, they often also pay for documents and forms to be translated and written for them, because many struggle with language and literacy barriers. Workers reported not knowing whether this is only happening to them or many others and when trying to speak with other people, the community in the UK is often too afraid to talk about these issues. They “feel they will be laughed at”. Workers highlighted several additional barriers to seeking help and work in the UK, including cultural differences and a lack of qualifications and work experience.

Even if not deported, workers explained that returning to their home country out of ‘choice’ would still bring shame to themselves and their families because they have not yet earned the money to repay their debts and have often sold their belongings and lost their livelihoods. Several workers mentioned that returning immediately and empty handed would make it appear they had failed to make a successful life in the UK. This places workers in a desperate position where they feel they cannot discuss what has happened to them with anyone – either to those in their home country or the UK – and they cannot leave the UK so must urgently look for any way to get an income. Many people in this position have turned to part-time cash in hand work in a garment factory which they say is given to them as a “favour” because they “needed money to survive in the UK”. One worker summarised the predicament as, “People try for years to get visa to come UK and when you are being told about work visa, hundreds will be in queue to try their luck and so did I. Now factory gives me cash in hand but I struggle to get the hours. I was made clear to me that as I am not a legal worker there will be no demands or rights. I get called whenever I am required, and I get a very little amount, but at least I have work for now.” Others in this situation, currently working in garment factories, have similarly told how they ended up feeling grateful for this work because “at least I am earning some money”.

“People try for years to get visa to come UK and when you are being told about work visa, hundreds will be in queue to try their luck and so did I. Now, factory gives me cash in hand but I struggle to get the hours. “

“Those who get trapped are left to suffer and deal alone. They are left to survive and made to work in adverse conditions. It is like forced labour, but by the government’s negligence. “

Still, moving forwards, workers have made clear they want and need to see changes. One worker said “I feel stuck in this situation, all I want is answers and to know what my rights are… I did not come to the UK to work illegally and to be afraid of doing wrong”. Another said “now I realised the scam, and how many must be stuck in the same way… I feel the government is absent in all of this but the fault is of the government. They open the visa system and agents trapped the public and call them over into the UK”. Meanwhile, the government turns a blind eye and “those who get trapped are left to suffer and deal alone. They are left to survive and made to work in adverse conditions. It is like forced labour but by the government’s negligence.” Several of the garment workers LBL spoke to, who are stuck in this position, want to know why these visas are allowed and why the Home Office does not look into the types of visas offered and the fraudulent schemes that are running around them. One worker commented, “If there is no work in the UK, then why have these schemes open and why are immigration giving such visas where people are able to enter the UK legally. I am sure this all should be monitored and people who are involved in this should be questioned”.

“Awareness should be raised in this matter and communities should know the truth.”

Many workers wanted this information about fraudulent visas to be more widespread amongst communities who are thinking of migrating to the UK for work so that they can be aware and not lose the significant amounts of money being paid to fake agencies and the Home Office to facilitate this travel. They also wanted the UK public to know what is happening to them: “I think awareness should be raised in this matter and communities should know the truth. This will need to be spread more so not just those who are affected by this know, but also those in the UK who think we just come here to take advantage should know our suffering and that we have misleading information”.

Some workers reported already knowing before travelling to the UK that the care agency on their visa did not exist – they were made aware by their visa agent in their home country but “accepted to come because [they] really wanted to be in the UK… the land of opportunities”. This shows there is also a lack of understanding around the rules and regulations of working in the UK, which vastly differs from garment workers’ home countries. Even though some workers knew they wouldn’t find the care agency in the UK attached to their visa, they did not understand that this would render their visa fraudulent altogether. When seeking work and getting asked about documentation and rights to work, many become stuck and cannot access information about next steps. In particular, visa agents are issuing fraudulent care certificates to workers so, despite paying a lot of money for documents and visas in the hopes of increasing their chances of finding wealth in the future, after living for a short while in the UK, the workers realise these documents cannot bring them work. They also realise that “things are very expensive here with a completely different culture”. This has led workers to become isolated and alone, trying to figure things out by themselves. Consequently, there is also a need for clearer information from the UK government for those who migrate to the UK for work to understand their rights, which labour markets they can access, and what support and welfare they are entitled to.

Another worker told LBL that while they came to the UK with a work visa in a care agency, and they had genuine qualifications to work in care, they still found there was no work available and were told “there is a queue of people like you who are coming from India and Sri Lanka wanting work in care, but we are full”. This worker asked, if this is the case, why is the UK government still issuing visas under this scheme? Workers are having to pay a lot of money to a broker in order to get visas, paperwork and documents for travel, as well as paying thousands to agents to find an employer in the UK who will provide a sponsor certificate (when the cost is actually £200). All they have left is debts and they are finding it increasingly difficult to secure work due to language barriers and being turned away from care agencies for what workers speculated was a lack of understanding around the rights of migrant workers and fear from employers for getting into trouble. Similarly, a worker found that although “I wanted to change my visa so that I am free to work anywhere, that is also costing a lot of money”. Their community suggested they find temporary work as “you cannot survive here for long without an income”. This worker was told that many people have come to the UK with the same visa and now they are also struggling – some have been forced to go back as they had no other choice.

The situation remains dire. Many workers on tied visas who secured a job in a garment factory are only called in when it is busy, or at night time and weekends when others are not working. They are told that due to the type of visa they are on, the bosses are not sure they can have them work legally and are taking risks in giving them work in the first place – and so they are paid far below minimum wage. But with a lack of knowledge, as one worker explained, “what argument do I have with them as I don’t know myself about this visa and whether I can work anywhere in any sector or only that agency, or any agency if it is a care agency”.

Conclusion

Ultimately, whilst all workers in the UK have access to legal support and rights in theory, in practice this looks very different. Workers on tied visas who are being abused and the superexploited could, for example, take their employer to court. However, they would lose their job, their visa and have to return to their home country with a mountain of debts. This is not a real choice but something merely that appears to be a solution under the government’s highly flawed, inherently exploitative visa and bordering policies.

It is not only in the garment industry that these racialised and colonial patterns of superexploitation are evident. Work by organisations such as Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) and Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU) have shown how restrictive border policies drive workers underground and thereby fuel poor conditions in several industries. And they have also shown that businesses rely upon these restrictive policies which allow them to exploit workers more. Recent work by FLEX, for example, has drawn attention to the UK fishing industry exploiting an immigration loophole of the seafarer’s transit-visa which allows migrant workers to be hired at low-cost but denies them workers protections under UK employment laws. There has also been a lot of recent work showing migrant labour is being heavily exploited in the UK’s adult social care sector.

Another sector with strong similarities to the stories of garment workers shared above is the agriculture industry whereby migrant seasonal workers are encouraged to support the UK’s horticulture sector. Yet, these visas are restricted to certain roles and farms provided by their sponsor or ‘Scheme Operator’ and, when these workers report exploitation, they have limited access to redress. The effectiveness of enforcement is curtailed by the coupling of the labour market with immigration enforcement. This is a key problem, as outlined, for migrant workers in the garment sector and shows the overcomplication and confusion around these tied and temporary visa schemes concerning how workers can access their rights without being deported.

It is clear that, since the introduction of “hostile environment” policies, as noted at the beginning of this article, the UK government has increasingly sought to make the UK unliveable for migrants and migrant workers. This is the case for those in the garment industry and it is a widespread problem across several sectors that are reliant on underpaid, precarious and physically exhausting labour. The key messages outlined in worker stories here add to the evidence already showing that superexploitation of migrant workers in the UK is facilitated and encouraged by the UK government’s border policies and visa schemes. Each year, new policies are introduced that increase this exploitation and marginalised migrant workers are in a deep crisis, struggling to get by. Meanwhile global capital, including fashion corporations unrestricted by borders, pocket millions in profits from the supererexploitation of migrant workers.

Just last year, in summer 2023, the government announced significant increases to immigration fees (which are not a one-off payment but must repeatedly be renewed) and the immigration surcharge. This has and will push more people into debt and further exploitation – including their reliance on work to repay debts and thereby increasing the power discrepancy between workers and their employers, who may also sponsor their visas. From 1st January 2024, the government has also made it so that overseas care workers and international students in the UK will no longer be able to bring dependants with them on their visa and raised the minimum income requirement for family visas. At the same time, they increased the fees migrants have to pay to use the NHS, in their words to “deliver the biggest reduction in net migration on record”. But the government knows this will only create more undocumented workers and push migrants already living in the UK into more precarious, exploitative and dangerous positions. They refuse to take responsibility for what will be the fallout of this; increased trafficking and modern slavery in the UK.