Afghan refugees fleeing the horrors of the Taliban risk being exploited for their labour as they are resettled in the UK, it has been warned.
It comes as the Home Office unveiled proposals to work with employers as part of Operation Warm Welcome, the government’s scheme to rehome around 15,000 people who have left the war-torn country.
One suggestion, revealed by Minister for Afghan Resettlement Victoria Atkins, was that businesses would be able to offer accommodation to Afghans they employ as Westminster tries to rehouse them as efficiently as possible.
However, warnings have been sounded following the discovery of “slavery” conditions in soft fruit farms across Scotland, which had taken part in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme pilot.
The government wants to resettle those arriving in the aftermath of the Afghan withdrawal across the UK.
It is understood 29 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities have come forward to the Home Office offering housing for Afghans.
Dundee, Fife, Angus and Perth & Kinross have all offered to rehome refugees, as have Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Moray, Highland, Orkney, Shetland, and the Western Isles.
Modern slavery safeguards
When asked by us what safeguards the government was putting in place to protect those resettling from being exploited, Ms Atkins said: “These plans are at a very early stage. Any plans we create will be carefully structured. My work on modern slavery makes me very aware to that.
“But lets not get in a negative mindset.
“There could well be some opportunities, for example in the hospitality sector, we are able to find a happy marriage between an employer who can offer good accommodation for people while offering them employment.”
She added: “We have the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and were the first government in the world to introduce the statement on tackling modern slavery.
“The point of the support we are giving at the moment is there a support structure around them, no-one will be forced into a job.
“It is about what suits them. We want to work with our Afghan families and the existing Afghan diaspora in the UK in an informed way.
“But of course, it will help prevent the sort of behaviour (like modern slavery and exploitation) and gives opportunities our country can provide.”
Seasonal Workers Scheme ‘exploited’
A report released earlier this year revealed widespread exploitation of people granted access to work in the UK on the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme.
A report conducted by Focus on Labour Exploitation (Flex) found workers were at direct risk of human trafficking as a result of the pilot, which was introduced following the end of freedom of movement after the UK left the EU.
People claimed they were made to feel like “slaves”, and that accommodation provided was mouldy, damp, dirty, unhygienic and unfit for living in.
Those who complained about their working and living conditions were threatened with being sacked and a majority of workers felt they were pressured into doing more work than they had time for.
‘Worth highlighting risks of schemes’
Flex’s head of policy, Kate Roberts, hoped the government would take into consideration the issues they have raised on exploitation of workers through other Home Office work schemes.
She said: “It is worth highlighting risks of schemes which shift the power balance between the worker and the employer by creating multiple dependencies on the employer – for example the Overseas Domestic Worker visa and the Seasonal Worker pilot scheme are both schemes where the worker depends on the employer for accommodation as well as employment.
“This can make it harder to challenge poor working or living conditions for fear for jeopardising your employment (or) becoming homeless.
“Having said that, supporting people who are ready to work, into decent work, can be key to rebuilding a life following trauma and there are measures which can be put in place to make sure that people know their rights under UK labour law as well as how to access these in practice.
“This means having access to information and options and rights, which you can access in practice, as well as individual support and advice.
“This should include practical information on UK labour laws, information regarding complaints mechanisms and where and how to make reports, availability of individual advice and availability of alternative options (of accommodation and work) so people can challenge an exploitative situation without risking destitution.
“People should also have recourse to public funds giving them a safety net.”
She added: “There should be labour inspections, rather than a reliance of individuals to report problems, as well as standards in place guaranteeing hours or work and minimum pay so that people don’t risk falling into debt bondage, for example due to being overcharged for accommodation or transport into work while being on a zero hours contract and not offered enough work.”