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Modern slaves: migrant workers in Britain today

This article is over 9 years, 7 months old
A new report reveals the dark underbelly of the food industry where workers are exploited, conned and abused. Sadie Robinson looks at the grim reality
Issue 2304

“Contemporary forms of slavery” exist in Britain. That’s the conclusion of research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The charity interviewed 62 migrant workers who worked in the food industry. Many said their bosses had lied to them, withheld their wages, paid less than the minimum wage and bullied them. Some described stealing food in order to survive.

Often workers lived in “shocking” overcrowded and unsafe accommodation that was tied to their job. Some had their passports retained by their employer—for up to a year.

One worker said that supervisors “did not call us by our names, we were called by numbers. They treated us like slaves.”

A Polish man described working conditions as being like “a concentration camp”. And a Chinese migrant told researchers that “feeling bullied or suppressed is normal and unavoidable”.

Racism and sexism were used to bully workers. And they were sacked for being pregnant or sick.

Gangmasters supply bosses with workers, and they charge the workers for their “services”. They take people on even when there isn’t enough work for them to do, because “the more workers they have, the more charges can be levied”.

Some workers had paid thousands of pounds to come to Britain after being promised work, only to find that the work didn’t exist. Debt made workers vulnerable and more likely to suffer abuse.

There was no guarantee of work from one day to the next. One worker described sitting in a canteen for hours waiting to see if she would be chosen for work that day.

“It was awful,” she said. “They were choosing young, attractive and energetic people. Many times I was rejected.”

Workers’ wages were docked for going to the toilet. Some were prevented from having any breaks. Pay was a constant source of anxiety. “They never paid me the full,” said one worker. “If I worked 40 hours I would see maybe 20 hours, half of the hours I worked for!”

Another said, “Some people are happy when they receive their wages but for me it was the worst day. I was so nervous thinking about how much this time is missing.”

Bosses snatched “fees” for transport, housing and unexplained administration costs. As one worker put it, “If you do not pay, you would sit without work.”


One woman said, “We have all ended up in debt. I have arrived on 5 January but my first salary I have received on 25 March. All this time I have survived on £119.”

Bosses weren’t taking advantage of people who live in Britain “illegally” and fear that if they complain they could face deportation. Most of those interviewed legally had the right to live and work here.

The researchers stress that forced labour isn’t caused by “isolated criminal employers”.

It says this flows from “competitive conditions and structures” and that the dominance of “a few large transnational corporations” and “subcontracting” has disempowered workers.

As one Congolese woman put it, “Back home, when you hear about the UK, you think of a heaven-like place. It was not the way I was expecting it!”

Bosses like prison guards

  • “The supervisors were like prison guards,” said one Latvian woman. “Amongst ourselves we called them Gestapo. They did not treat us like humans.”
  • Workers were set unrealistic targets—and saw their wages cut when they failed to meet them. One food picker said, “I couldn’t pick enough boxes and then I earned only £10. It was a swindle.”
  • Bosses intimidate workers into accepting the conditions with the threat of dismissal. As one worker said, “They were saying, ‘If you don’t like it go away outside the gate, there are 20 or more people waiting’.”
  • Those interviewed in this study had lived in the UK for an average of more than five years. All but nine had worked in the food industry since arriving here.
  • For those harvesting food, working hours can be between 6.15am until 11pm. One said, “There isn’t time to do anything. You come home, get a shower and go to sleep. In the morning you get up at 6 again and go to work. That’s it!”

    One Chinese worker said, “I do not have time to communicate with my children. They are asleep when we are home from work and when we get up in the morning they have gone to school already. I do not have any private time.”


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