Forced Labour and Immigration in the UK February 2004 – November 2004


This exploratory report offers a new framework within which to discuss the problem of super-exploitation in the workplace and what is shared and distinct in the experiences of British and migrant workers. Compiled in the wake of the disaster in which 21 Chinese migrants died picking cockles off Morecambe Bay in February 2004, it examines the relation between immigration control and labour markets in four key sectors (agriculture, construction, care workers and contract cleaning), highlighting issues such as health and safety, accommodation and subcontracting.

In recent years, there have been many reports in the media of the extreme forms of exploitation that some migrant workers face in Britain. On the one hand, the migrants involved are depicted as ‘victims’ working in Dickensian conditions, while the employers and ubiquitous gangmasters are portrayed as being morally reprehensible and, more often than not, foreign. On the other hand, migrants are also frequently portrayed as benefiting from undeserved opportunities. A key finding is that future discussion must begin to separate the control of immigration and the protection of workers’ rights.

Principal Investigator

Bridget Anderson


Ben Rogaly (Sussex), Patience Mususa (Oxford)


International Labour Organisation

Professionals' Advisory Group

Sussex Centre for Migration Research, University of Sussex

The Trades Union Congress (TUC)

News & Media




IllegalityLabour Markets




This report is based on qualitative interviews with 33 migrants, 13 legal representatives and interviews with trades unions, employers, agencies and other stakeholders. It also drew on a one year review of local, national and trade press articles on exploitation of migrant labour. It aimed to stimulate debate and to move beyond an analysis predicated on victims and villains to examine how it is that certain groups of workers become vulnerable to gross exploitation and abuse.


Migrant workers in the UK, including those with the right to work here, may be subject to such levels of exploitation and control that they meet the international legal definition of ‘forced labour’. The report finds that migrant workers do not benefit from the same rights that apply to every other worker in the UK, and calls on the government to crack down on employers who break employment law in its “managed migration” policies.

People trafficking in the sex trade and the exploitation of workers with no legal right to work – such as the Morecambe cockle pickers – have been exposed before. But this report reveals that migrants with the legal right to work in the UK may also be exploited and abused. They may be unable to enforce their rights as workers because of the power given to their employer by virtue of their immigration status.

The report reveals abuse, including very long hours, pay below the minimum wage and dangerous working conditions in a range of sectors. Employers and agencies that break the law are rarely prosecuted or even inspected by the authorities. Indeed the report finds employers using the threat of immigration authorities against migrant workers.


Forced Labour and Migration to the UK
Reports | Bridget Anderson, Ben Rogaly | 2007