Migrants working illegally on British soil are vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous employers, but they could also face prison terms of up to 6 months. Over the past three years, enforcement has intensified and employers are encouraged to report undocumented migrants.
"In England, you can work even if you have no papers," InfoMigrants heard several migrants in Grande-Synthe and Calais say.
The United Kingdom remains a European El Dorado for many migrants. The wish to get there pushes many of them to take indiscriminate risks to reach England from France.
But working without papers on the other side of the Channel remains just as forbidden as in France.
Working illegally is risky, Emily Kenway, from the labor rights NGO Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), told InfoMigrants. "It’s illegal to work undocumented in the UK. So, people do work here without documentation but it is not legally allowed and they are unlikely to be employed by reputable businesses,” she warned. “This means they will tend to work for businesses or bosses who are willing to break the law (as it is illegal to employ someone undocumented). They are therefore highly vulnerable to abuse, such as non-payment of wages, etc.”
Working 12 hours a day for 44 euros
The NGO Consonant, which defends the rights of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom, found that undocumented people on British soil were easy prey for unscrupulous bosses who underpaid their employees, did not respect workplace safety conditions or even confiscated the passports of undocumented migrants. "It is not the wonderful world described to migrants here," Ian Kane, head of Consonant's legal team, warned InfoMigrants.
Hand car washes, which can be found on roadsides or in car parks in British supermarkets are frequently condemned by British NGOs. Foreign workers, often undocumented, work up to 12 hours a day for a daily wage of 40 pounds (44 euros), according to an October 2018 joint report by the University of Nottingham and the Office of the Independent Commissioner for the Fight against Slavery.
A criminal offence punishable by 6 months in prison
Another risk for migrants working without a permit in the United Kingdom is the threat of 6 months in prison. On the other side of the Channel, undocumented labor is a criminal offence that can be punished by a fine, imprisonment for migrants, as well as the confiscation of earnings from the activity carried out without having had the right to do so.
While working is prohibited for illegal migrants, it is also prohibited for asylum seekers while their case is being considered, a process that can take from 3 months to 5 years, in the event of an appeal. After one year, following the first decision in their asylum application, asylum seekers are eligible to apply for a waiver that will allow them to work, but only in certain occupations. "In practice, it is not common to obtain a waiver. It is only for those working in rare professions, such as for surgeons," Kane explained.
"We advise all the people we follow through the asylum application not to work illegally. If they are caught, it would ruin any chance of getting asylum. The state would consider them to have come here to work and would suspect them of lying about their asylum application," Ian Kane said.
An ambush organized by a fast-food chain
The 2016 UK Immigration Act introduced the offence of "illegal work". "This has, in particular, encouraged companies not to employ undocumented people. An employer now faces a five-year prison sentence [previously two years] and a fine if a company is found guilty of hiring someone if there is 'reasonable cause to believe' that person is not allowed to work in the UK, Kenway said. "Police and labor inspectorates in the UK often do joint operations with immigration enforcement teams,” she said.
The latest edition of the official guide issued by the UK Home Office for employers wishing to hire foreign workers from outside the European Union explicitly asks them to report any false documents to the British immigration authorities. In other words, the authorities are pushing employers to report undocumented migrants.
"There have been cases where our immigration enforcement teams identified undocumented workers in a business and did a deal with the employer such that the employer would not be prosecuted for this, if they worked with immigration enforcement to help the state catch the undocumented workers," Kenway said. That happened in July 2016, when a restaurant chain, Byron, organized a gathering of its employees under the pretext of "a meeting on cooking hamburgers". When they got there, immigration officers were waiting in the room and were able to carry out a surprise document inspection.
They arrested 35 illegal migrants, some 20 of whom were subsequently taken to detention centers. The company's executives claimed not to have been informed of the ambush. The English burger chain had secretly agreed with the Ministry of the Interior to organize this operation in order to avoid prosecution.
Migrants turn back and return to France
The figures on the number of undocumented migrants in the United Kingdom are controversial and the subject of debate. Between 300,000 and more than one million illegal migrants were in Britain in 2018, according to the BBC. In March 2019, the British authorities identified 600,000 people who had been expelled but for whom no record of their departure was found.
Conservative Boris Johnson, who replaced British prime minister Theresa May on July 23, talks about 500,000 undocumented migrants in London alone. His takeover as Prime Minister could change British immigration policy. In mid-July he proposed regularising the status of illegal immigrants, while promising, if elected, to tighten legislation by introducing a points-based immigration system based on skills and offers of employment.
In the meantime, tired of the harsh working conditions, but also of the difficulties in obtaining housing in England, migrants are turning back and returning to France, according to Ocriest (French Central Office for the repression of illegal immigration and the employment of untitled foreigners). In 2017, some 966 people crossed the Channel irregularly in the opposite direction, this time from England to Calais.