Page last updated at 22:00 GMT, Thursday, 26 April 2007 23:00 UK

Migrant 'underclass' to be probed

Migrant workers
The BBC found migrant workers were underpaid and exploited

An official inquiry is being launched into evidence gathered by the BBC that migrant workers are being trafficked into Britain and exploited.

Employment Protection Minister Jim Fitzpatrick said he took the findings "most seriously".

Any firm found to have breached minimum standards of "dignity and respect" would be "taken to task", he said.

Experts said the workers' treatment was "modern-day slavery", but all companies targeted by the probe deny wrongdoing.

Undercover Lithuanian journalist Audrius Lelkaitis, working as part of the BBC News investigation, posed as a migrant worker seeking a job in the UK.

He discovered a new underclass subjected to deception, systematic underpayment and appalling living conditions.

This is a kind of forced or bonded labour - this is modern day slavery
Det Chief Constable Grahame Maxwell

BBC News' Allan Little said he had received emails "from across the country from people who say they know of similar abuses" following an undercover investigation into the problem, broadcast on BBC News on Wednesday.

He went on: "That suggests that labour exploitation may be widespread.

"There is a recurring theme in these emails - why hasn't the government acted to clamp down on the abuse?"

Meanwhile, Mr Fitzpatrick said the employment agency standards inspectorate and national minimum wage enforcement teams were responsible for ensuring workers were not mistreated.

"If we find there are breaches we will take organisations, employers and others to task," he added.

Illegal deductions

Mr Lelkaitis paid hundreds of pounds to agencies in Lithuania and London in return for the promise of a job in Hull which did not exist.

After being offered work with licensed gangmasters Focus Staff Limited in Hull he was paid below the minimum wage two weeks in arrears.

After three weeks, he received £97 for 20 hours' work in his first week, although £50 was deducted for accommodation costs.

He also had money deducted for accommodation without it being shown on his payslip, which is illegal, and was forced to live in overcrowded accommodation.

Paul Whitehouse, who chairs the Gangmasters' Licensing Authority, told BBC 2's Newsnight: "It's two hundred years since slavery was abolished. We mustn't allow it to continue now."

Speaking on the same programme, Jack Dromey - deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union - said the government "needs to go much further" to combat the exploitation of migrant workers.

"We need robustly to enforce the existing that we see gangmasters - rogue gangmasters - go to jail," he said.

Mike Dickenson, director of Focus Staff Ltd
Mike Dickenson, director of Focus Staff Ltd, denies any wrongdoing

Mike Dickenson, director of Focus Staff Limited, denied any illegal practices.

"I don't underpay my workers," he said. "Everything I do is legal and above board," he said.

'Bonded labour'

Deputy Chief Constable Grahame Maxwell, programme director of the UK Human Trafficking Centre, said the opening of Europe's borders had brought with it a new kind of people trafficking.

He said: "This quite clearly is labour exploitation. Certain elements are there; there's a deception and there's a movement of people with an expectation of being paid a reasonable and appropriate wage.

"This is a kind of forced or bonded labour. This is modern day slavery."

Aidan McQuade, director of campaign group Anti-Slavery International, said trafficking to exploit labour involved a number of factors.

These included the use of deception, intimidation, the removal of documents, excessive charges for accommodation and transport, the exploitation of someone's irregular immigration status or the fact they are in debt, in order to force them to work in conditions they do not agree to, he said.

He added: "Some of these mechanisms are reported in this BBC News investigation."

Update 15 September 2009: The police did not bring any criminal proceedings in this case but the gangmaster's licence held by Focus Staff Ltd was not renewed by the industry regulator.


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