In 1993 when the AIRE Centre was set up, the EU consisted of 12 countries. With the UK officially out of the EU as of January 31st, reducing the grouping of democratic nations to 27. Having been able to shape EU decisions for decades, the UK now faces the challenge of doing so as an outsider.

However, Brexit is not just about backstops, deals and political debate. It is about real people. EU nationals, many of whom have lived in Britain for years, sometimes decades, now face an uncertain future in the place they call home. The same uncertainly also faces the 1 ½ million Brits living in Europe.   

Around 1 million EU citizens have yet to apply under the EU Settlement Scheme, the new immigration system set up by the UK government which provides EU citizens and their families with a route to living and working in the UK beyond 31 December 2020. Monitoring and understanding who are vulnerable and/at risk of potentially missing out on applying and regularising their status is almost as hard to define as the existential risks faced by many

EU nationals make up seven per cent of the UK labour market, with key sectors of British business reliant on their contribution. Industries such as factory and construction jobs are particularly dependent on EU workers, with 21 per cent of the workforce who work in this sector being born in Europe. Retail and manufacturing will also be hit hard, as 50% of all EU nationals work in these industries.

Compounding the issue, a large proportion of EU nationals from newer member states earn the lowest of all UK employed nationalities, with average earnings of £21,000 per year. If these low-paid EU workers miss the EUSS deadline or are below the £30,000 minimum income threshold proposed, then their continued ability to live and work in the UK is in jeopardy.

Businesses in the UK have a moral and financial interest in supporting their workforces and to look at their supply chains to ensure that their EU staff and dependants are aware of the Scheme and know what they need to do in order to secure their long-term status in the UK. Otherwise potentially huge damage will be caused to British industry, and a forgotten Brexit risks of thousands being forced into unemployment, undocumented work and also modern slavery.

The Global Slavery Index estimates there is 136,000 modern slavery victims in the UK. There has been a 35% year on year increase in the numbers of victims rescued since 2015. 6,993 victims were rescued in 2018 and put into the National Referral Mechanism. Many of these many victims are working in legitimate businesses, hidden in plain sight. The route to legitimate business is often via labour providers who are not necessarily aware of the risks.

Since the Modern Slavery Act was introduced by the UK government in 2015, businesses were brought into the world of public protection. S54 of the Act states that any business with a turnover of £36 million pounds or more have to produce a statement outlining all the activity undertaken to eradicate modern slavery in their organisation and their supply chain. The responsibility goes beyond just the organisation, they have to be looking at their supply chain too.

Brexit is an important factor (and also a significant risk) in the fight against modern slavery. A significant number of Europeans are tricked and lured into the UK with false promises. They find themselves placed in terrible housing and told they owe the traffickers money for transport, housing and food. These victims are desperate to work, to pay off their debts, and to start earning their own money. Most have no idea of their rights however, with many believing they face deportation (as well as a very real and legitimate fear of reprisals from the trafficking gangs) if they go to the police. It is in the trafficking gangs’ interests, of course, not to tell these people about their rights, especially the need to apply for EU Settlement Scheme.

Businesses in the UK therefore need to ensure they know how to reduce the risk of modern slavery now and post Brexit? Firstly, there needs to be an acknowledgment that modern slavery in the UK is not just restricted to the low paid cash-in-hand roles; the car washes, the nail bars. Victims can be legally employed, paying tax and working alongside people who have no idea that they are being forced to work there, to hand over their wages etc. Also, there are key signs to spot. Have companies got people working for them who live at the same address? Multi-occupied living conditions is a key indicator. Are they being dropped off and picked up by same person,  as traffickers control their movement? People may have poor personal hygiene as their living conditions are usually poor and they often have limited clothing. Do they have a fear of authorities or the police? Are there signs of trauma including psychological e.g. anxiety? Do they have their ID or passport? Is the bank account you are putting wages into in their name?

Once we know what we are looking for, we will see the victims and make it harder for traffickers to exploit them and our businesses. The AIRE Centre, is therefore working with the UK authorities on a project which aims to highlight the EU Settlement Scheme, the importance of applying and implications to individuals and Businesses if people don’t, in order to support the most vulnerable (including victims of modern slavery) to apply and ensure those at risk don’t in the end miss out.     

Director of The AIRE Centre (Advice on Individual Rights in Europe)