The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) is a U.K. body whose role is to protect vulnerable and exploited workers. Through information it receives from inspections, the public, the industry, and other government departments, it investigates allegations of worker exploitation and illegal activities such as human trafficking and forced labor.
In a recent case investigated by the GLAA, authorities found Indian students, who had stopped attending classes at Greenwich, Chester, and Teesside universities shortly after arriving in the U.K., working in exploitative conditions in the care sector in Wales. They were living in squalid conditions with up to 12 people in a three-bed apartment and working up to 80 hours a week, sometimes double shifts, for well below minimum wage.
The Guardian and the Observer explored the situation of labor exploitation in the care sector: human traffickers are using universities as an alibi to target victims.
Widespread labor exploitation in care homes across U.K.
The GLAA report comes after an Observer investigation uncovered widespread labor exploitation in care homes across the U.K. Workers from India, the Philippines, and countries in Africa were charged up to £18,000 ($21,000) in illegal recruitment fees and, in some cases, were then forced to work in conditions akin to debt bondage and had their wages intercepted and their passports withheld.
In these cases, many of the alleged victims had arrived in the U.K. on legitimate skilled worker visas, granted by the Home Office to help fill staff shortages in the care sector.
Meri Åhlberg, research director at Focus on Labour Exploitation, notes that the abuse of people on student visas is a growing concern in the U.K. due to labor shortages:
“There have been students who’ve been pressured to work in ways that do not comply with their visa and that makes them really vulnerable to exploitation because they can be told by their employer that they’re going to be reported to immigration enforcement or lose their right to be in the country,”
The findings have led to calls for increased scrutiny of student visas and warnings for universities to be on the alert, and the GLAA has said they must monitor student applications, attendance, and payment of fees to identify signs of modern slavery.
International student recruitment, a high-risk area for U.K. universities
The University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, the world’s largest group of modern slavery researchers, has also identified international student recruitment as a high-risk area in British universities and warned in a recent report on campuses that student visas could be used to facilitate human trafficking.
Licensed universities can sponsor students to come to the U.K. provided they have been accepted to a course, and applicants are usually required to demonstrate that they have enough money to support themselves and cover fees, and a good level of English. Once they arrive in the U.K., the sponsoring university is obliged to monitor their attendance, commitment, and absences.
For its part, Universities U.K., which represents 140 universities, says that levels of abuse in the student system are very low and that many of its members “go beyond what is formally required by the Home Office” to prevent students from exploitation.
The Home Office made the following statement: “Offenders who force people into modern-day slavery for commercial purposes will be tracked down and brought to justice. We have given law enforcement agencies the powers and resources to act when exploitation is discovered.”