Comment - To work or not to work?
From one of BID's volunteers - Charalampos Stylogiannis
‘‘Sir, do you have a criminal record?’’
‘‘Yes, I do!’’
‘‘May I ask what was the nature of your offence?’’
‘‘I was working illegally for a charity that helps homeless people to get off the streets.’’
(Conversation with a client of BID, who is in immigration detention)
The word ‘’crime’’ can be defined as an illegal act for which someone should be punished by law. Most of us would associate it either with violent actions, such as homicide and robbery, or with non-violent offences, such as bribery and embezzlement. It would be difficult for someone to reconcile his right to work in order to provide for himself and his family to something that is punishable by imprisonment. Yet, the same cannot be said for Mr X, a client of BID, and for thousands of irregular migrants in the UK, who seek to find employment.
The UK’s current legislative framework aims to ensure that it is almost impossible for undocumented migrants to work. In practice, however, many are employed irregularly, primarily in the informal economy. They are at high risk of being exploited, often work under inhumane conditions and receive lower wages than UK nationals and regular migrants. The recent Immigration Act 2016 aims to reduce the occurrence of forced labour by widening the scope for prosecution; and increasing the maximum penalty. The new feature the Act introduces is that employers could face civil or criminal sanctions for hiring undocumented migrant workers. Before these amendments an employer could just plead ignorance when it came to employing irregular migrants. The new legislative provisions also generate an even harsher regime against irregular migrants, by introducing a specific criminal offence of working without papers. Before the new Act came into force, this was not categorized as a criminal offence.
At BID, on a daily basis, we deal with clients who are facing immigration detention due to their decision to work in order to survive. These people find themselves in a vicious circle: either they will find employment and they will be punished as a result or they will not work, but face destitution. In both cases they will be forced to leave the country. Ironically enough, under the current legislation, the only places that undocumented workers can legally work are the detention centres themselves; and, if this were not unacceptable enough, the maximum of £1 per hour they receive for their labour is completely exploitive.
In my opinion, increasing the penalties against undocumented labour does not mean that the employment of undocumented workers will stop, nor will their exploitation. Nevertheless, it might mean that the new provisions have the potential to push irregular migrant workers deeper underground in their attempt to find a better life. For instance, as Alice Bloch and Sonia McKay indicate, undocumented workers can be exploited even more because some employers manage the risks of prosecution by lowering remunerations and increasing working hours.
To conclude, as mentioned, Mr X was charged with 3 months in prison just because he worked for a charity without the necessary papers. He is classified as a criminal and he faces deportation. Therefore, as unfair and sad as it sounds, for Mr X and thousands of other people around us, the answer to the question ‘‘to work or not to work?‘ is simple: either way, your future in this country will be short and harsh!