A lack of legal protection for the thousands of migrant workers who arrive in the UK each year is giving the green light to unscrupulous agencies and employers to exploit foreign workers, says the TUC in a new report.
The report, "Overworked, underpaid and over here", claims that many migrant workers have to put up with low levels of pay, poor housing and long hours as employers take advantage of their often poor command of the English language.
It also calls on the government to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and to prosecute employers who take advantage of migrant workers.
According to the report, the number of migrant workers as a proportion of the UK workforce has increased by nearly a third (from seven to nine per cent) since 1995 and now stands at some 2.6 million people. However this figure does not take into account the many illegal workers in the UK.
Foreign students - who are allowed to work for up to 20 hours a week during term time - make up the largest proportion of migrant workers (339,000 entered in 2001), while some 140,000 people came to the UK on work permits.
The report highlights a catch-22 situation encountered by many migrant workers. Those treated badly by employers have the right to take their complaint to an industrial tribunal, but by doing so they could lose their job and as a consequence their right to stay in the UK.
And whilst migrant workers are often exploited because of their ignorance of the law and their employment rights, says the TUC, the situation is even worse for those working without legal permission to do so. It’s likely, says the TUC, that these workers have no rights at all, with tribunals declining to hear complaints from workers without legal contracts.
"Most migrant workers only stay for short periods, and their precarious legal status means many end up working incredibly long hours for not much pay, in jobs that UK workers wouldn't want to do," TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said.
"If every illegal worker was removed from the UK, parts of the economy would collapse overnight," he added. "People arrive attracted by the money they believe they can earn, but their lack of legal status makes them vulnerable to criminal gangmasters and unscrupulous employers.
"So long as these workers continue to be deported but nothing happens to the people employing them, this unfortunate situation will continue."