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Tighter controls on EU immigration risk fuelling people smuggling and modern slavery in Britain, the UK government’s employment tsar has warned.
Matthew Taylor warned of a “greater temptation” for illegal migration if EU free movement is heavily curbed. New details on the government’s immigration plans will be unveiled this week.
Speaking exclusively to Yahoo Finance UK, the chief executive of the RSA charity sounded the alarm in his new role as the government’s interim director of labour market enforcement.
Official figures suggest migrants arriving without papers are particularly vulnerable to modern slavery, including forced labour.
The majority of adult modern slavery cases reported in Britain last year involved labour exploitation, with alleged victims from 130 different countries.
Taylor’s comments in an interview with Yahoo Finance UK come as a report on Britain’s post-Brexit immigration system is set to be published on Tuesday.
Prime minister Boris Johnson asked the government’s migration advisory committee to review his proposals for an “Australian-style” points-based system and end to EU free movement.
Home secretary Priti Patel suggested on Sunday the new regime could make migration harder for EU nationals. She told Sky News that British firms had been “far too reliant on low-skilled and quite frankly cheap labour from the EU.”
More than 30 business groups had signed a joint letter last week urging the government to maintain “access to the labour and skills needed” for the economy to thrive.
But Taylor told Yahoo Finance UK: “One thing we have to keep an eye on is that if EU migration is going to be more tightly controlled, that can mean one of two things.
“On the one hand, a more tight labour market gives more power to workers. On the other hand, if there aren’t legitimate routes for people to come in and get work, there’s a danger of people using illegitimate routes to come in and get work.
“It may also lead to greater dangers around things like people smuggling and modern slavery, if people simply can’t get the workers. There will be a greater temptation for that to happen.”
He also suggested firms’ growing struggle to find staff amid a record employment boom in Britain could further incentivise the illegal use of undocumented workers.
“Generally speaking in a tight labour market, workers have more power but there are more incentives to circumvent the system,” he added.
He said it was not an “iron law” that such risks would materialise, but said it was part of his role to warn of how broader decisions like Brexit could affect labour rights and the challenges of enforcing them.
Taylor, once a policy chief for former prime minister Tony Blair, was speaking as part of a wider interview earlier this month on his new role in government, to be published next week on Yahoo Finance UK.
He was appointed in August last year to boost collaboration and intelligence-sharing among three separate government bodies regulating different parts of Britain’s labour market.
His role involves oversight of the employment agency standards inspectorate (EAS), gangmasters and labour abuse authority (GLAA) and HMRC’s national minimum wage enforcement team.
It followed his review into modern working practices including the gig economy for former prime minister Theresa May’s administration in 2017.
He also said disadvantages “tend to go together,” with the lowest-paid the most likely to be exploited but often the least likely to know their rights or be able to demand them.
One reform he called for in the review will come into effect in April, forcing firms to give contractors as well as employees a clear statement of their rights by their first day.
He said it had not received much attention but could have “quite a big impact” in empowering vulnerable workers to be aware of potential breaches of their rights.
“Getting a simple statement saying you’re entitled to holiday pay might not seem a great deal,” he said.
“But if you’re a person whose English isn’t great, or whose educational attainment isn’t great, to know that’s what you’re entitled to and be able to say ‘OK, am I getting that?’ — that could be quite powerful.”