Treatment of migrant workers: Equal under the law – a law in practice feature

The UK has a patchy track record in its deployment of migrant workers. Incidents such as the accident on a London building site in 2005, when Polish worker Pawel Szczotka was permanently disabled after a two-ton concrete slab fell on him, serve to illustrate the vulnerability of such people. They also show that the law is prepared to get tough: in Szczotka’s case the two construction firms involved were recently fined £110,000 and ordered to pay £165,000 in costs.

Health and Safety Executive inspector Simon Hestor, who investigated the incident, urged companies to ensure safe systems of work, warning of “the risks that migrant workers can be exposed to when unaware of employers’ health and safety responsibilities and their own rights”.

Code of practice

But now, in the North West at least, employers are being offered support to stay ahead of the law and to treat migrant workers properly. Organisations with more than 30 employees can sign up to the clearly-named Minimum Stan­dards Charter Voluntary Code of Practice on Employing Migrant and European Workers.

The charter was developed by Migrant Workers North West, an advisory body established last year by the North West Development Agency. It is believed to be the first of its kind in the UK.

The code requires its signatories to recognise that migrant workers are entitled to the same statutory employment rights and are protected by UK employment law in the same way as local staff. Signatories also have to promote a culture which values diversity and prevents racial harassment.

“We do a first visit to carry out a diagnostic in terms of policies, procedures and recruitment practices concerning discrimination,” says Dave Evans, employee engagement liaison officer at Migrant Workers North West. The charter is awarded on the results of the review and on the basis of interviews with 10 randomly-selected staff.

One of the first employers to sign up was Hazeldene Foods, a fresh food processing plant in Wigan. HR manager Mary-Jane Balshen is clearly proud of having chartered status.

“We have 212 employees of 17 different nationalities. And we behave towards all of them in a way that is morally and ethically right,” she says.

Balshen believes that good lines of communication and career opportunities are fundamental. For example, the works council at Hazeldene has different representatives from each of the languages spoken there. The company also runs English language courses with a local college. It is keen to help migrant workers integrate with peers and in the community, says Balshen, and offers employee support on a range of matters such as dealing with the local council or debt problems.

Migrant workers are typically recruited through an agency as temporary workers, but after eight weeks of satisfactory work at Hazeldene they have an opportunity to gain a permanent contract. They receive the same considerations for career development as any other employee.

“There is a fluid route throughout the company,” says Balshen, pointing to examples of migrant workers who have progressed from packing to managerial jobs within two years.

Repeat checks

The company is also ahead of schedule for the required checks on migrant workers, which come into force on 29 February 2008. “I make sure that the agency has an auditable trail of information for temporary staff which includes permission to work,” says Balshen. “When an agency worker is offered a permanent contract of employment the security checks are carried out again by a member of the HR team at Hazeldene.”

Balshen reinforces her approach by working in conjunction with the Workers Registration Scheme (which covers Eastern European workers) in Sheffield, and the Home Office.

In 5 steps

At Migrant Workers North West Dave Evans, employee engagement liaison officer, offers this advice:

  1. Go back to basics. Check that you have relevant information about all employees.
  2. Check your policies on discrimination, harassment and race relations.
  3. Aim for an integrated workforce to eliminate workplace factions.
  4. Watch for misunderstandings – such as ‘more migrant workers means less overtime’.
  5. Remember that prevention of exploitation is better than cure.

New penalties from 29 February 2008

Employers that operate illegally from the end of this month will face heavy fines, warns Kerry Garcia, senior associate in the employment and immigration team of Stevens & Bolton solicitors.

“If they are employing someone illegally and have failed to carry out the appropriate checks, such as checking passports when a person first starts work, and then every 12 months if they have limited leave [to remain], they will be fined up to £10,000,” she says.

Employers must not rely on an agency to do these checks, Garcia warns, and they must have the employee’s consent.

“They must also be seen to treat everyone the same at all stages of recruitment,” she says. For example, they must ask everyone for their passports at the same stage of the recruitment process.

“You need to ensure that you bring all employment policies to everyone’s attention. Special care may be needed to explain certain policies to migrant workers who don’t speak good English. This may assist employers when defending a discrimination or personal injury claims.”

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