‘Papers Please’

‘Papers Please’


Written by: Frances Webber

A new report finds that exploitation of vulnerable undocumented workers continues despite new laws.

Jack Dromey (deputy general secretary of Unite) estimates in the foreword to ‘Papers Please’, a new report by the Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN), that there are half a million undocumented migrants in the UK, pointing out that they are among the most vulnerable workers, many doing the dirtiest, most dangerous and most demeaning work available. The new civil penalty regime, which further entrenches immigration control functions into the employer-employee relationship, forces these undocumented workers into an increasingly desperate situation. Phrases such as ‘illegal migrants’ and ‘illegal working’ are used by the government in policy documents to justify a punitive approach to undocumented migrants, many of whom, as MRN Director Don Flynn points out, began their migration lawfully and many others unrecognised refugees, are treated as cynical opportunists, and the work they do treated as ‘theft’ of opportunities from British people.

The report first explains the recent changes in the work permit system and the system of employer sanctions, which reduce migrants’ eligibility for employment and place far more of the burden of checking employees’ rights to work on employers, and looks at the massive increase in enforcement operations. The body of the report sets out findings derived from interviews with a small sample of migrant workers, employer organisations, trade unions, advisory and advocacy services and community support groups in the summer of 2008. It describes how many employers, fearful of high penalties, have carried out workplace document checks on all their employees since the new civil penalty regime came into force on 29 February 2008. As always, it is the individual case studies which demonstrate most vividly the impact on the legal changes on people’s lives. Undocumented workers were in some cases immediately dismissed, had back pay withheld or were arrested following employers’ tip-offs to UK Border and Immigration Agency in return for reduced fines. Workers who were legally entitled to work, such as refugees, work permit holders and others were sometimes wrongly dismissed, or refused employment, because employers misunderstood their status. Black and ethnic minority employers also appear to be disproportionately targeted for enforcement action.

The authors conclude that the civil penalty regime is not geared to achieving its professed aims of ‘ensur[ing] compliance with our immigration laws’ and ‘tackl[ing] the exploitation underpinning illegal immigration’, concluding that many employers will simply stop employing migrant workers altogether, while undocumented migrants are more likely to move into clandestine employment, exposing them to greater exploitation, rather than leave the UK voluntarily.

Related links

Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN)

Download a copy of ‘Papers Please’ (pdf file, 862kb)

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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