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Government should widen laws to combat widespread labour abuse

22 May 2012

The Government should act urgently to stop the widespread abuse of foreign workers, say crime experts at The University of Manchester.

Professor Kauko Aromaa and Dr Jon Spencer, from the University’s School of Law, say legislation drawn up after the 2004 Morecambe Bay disaster in which 21 people died could be widened to include other employment sectors.

Unlicensed foreign workers in the UK and across Europe, enduring unacceptable working and living conditions for little or no wages, need urgent protection they say.

New research by Professor Aromaa, one of the world’s leading crime experts, reveals forced labour is widespread within sectors including construction, food processing, catering, cleaning and agriculture.

Though the study was conducted in Northern Europe, all countries in Europe-  including the UK- have similar problems, he will say at the ‘Cross-Border Crime Colloquium’ of crime experts, held this year at the University.

Professor Aromaa, who joins The University of Manchester this week, is a lead member of the European Expert group working on the Crime and Criminal Justice European Sourcebook.

He was also Director of the UN affiliated European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control from 2000 – 2011.

He said: “Though these people are technically protected under section 71 of the Coroners’ and Justice Act 2009, which has provisions against forced labour, the core issue is the narrow remit of the Gangmaster Licensing Authority.

“The GLA was created after the tragedy of 2004 and is working reasonably well for workers in the agriculture, horticulture and shellfish sectors.

“However, the problem is widespread in a range of other sectors across Europe: including  the UK, so we say existing GLA legislation could and should be urgently broadened to address this.

“Because the movement of people across borders has become so much more prevalent within Europe in recent years – the availability of people who can be exploited is very large.

“The general picture is the same: labour – sometimes not paid anything at all - working in substandard conditions, housed in overcrowded conditions and often trapped into a life of debt bondage.”

He added: “Despite the evidence, the Government is yet to pick up on what is a serious problem.

“Part of it is that they aren’t aware of the extent of the situation.

“But it’s also controversial for Governments to protect the migrant community who do not attract much sympathy from sections of the public.

“We say, though, that it is the responsibility of politicians and policy makers to rise above this and protect the vulnerable.”

Dr Jon Spencer will tell the colloquium: “It appears that opportunistic informal networks are the general means of organising labour exploitation experienced by vulnerable migrants to the UK.

“This view runs counter to commonly held view that organised crime is to blame for the majority of labour exploitation.

“Because quality of data is so poor, it’s hard to accurately say if the problem is getting worse – but we can certainly say that it’s a real issue which needs tackling urgently.

The Cross-Border Crime Colloquium is an annual event since 1999 founded by Professor Petrus Van Duyne from Tilburg University.

The Colloquium brings together experts on international organised crime to discuss the latest developments in empirical research, legislation and law enforcement, with a geographical focus on Western, Central, and Eastern Europe.