For many, one redeeming legacy of Tony Blair’s government was the introduction of the minimum wage. But before he left office, Blair passed another law. He stripped minimum wage rights from anyone held in an immigration detention centre. At that time, these detainees were mainly Iraqi and Afghan asylum seekers who had fled his wars.
The consequences of this law became clear in 2008 when, under Gordon Brown’s premiership, the Home Office decided detainees could work for as little as £1 an hour. Locked up inside, waiting months for a decision on their asylum applications, detainees were paid a pittance to work as cleaners, laundry assistants and painters, as well as carrying out other menial, mind-numbing, yet vital, tasks to keep the detention centres operating smoothly.
Since the scheme started, the minimum wage has climbed steadily from around £5.73 to £7.38 an hour (for workers aged 21 to 24). Meanwhile, ten years later, detainees are still only paid £1 an hour. Many of them call it "slavery". This year, civil servants recommended a paltry raise of 15p per hour to the detainee pay, "in line with inflation". But even that was too much for Theresa May’s government, which refused to implement the recommendation. The decision was confirmed privately at the height of the Windrush Scandal, just days after Amber Rudd stepped down over her hard-line immigration policies.
Now, VICE has obtained nearly a decade’s worth of government data, stretching from January of 2009 to May of 2018, and calculated how much detainees have lost out on in wages, had they been earning the minimum wage throughout that period. The result, we estimate, is a staggering £25 million – and this is likely to be an underestimate. Several detention centres did not begin recording the data until as late as 2014, meaning we will never know the full scale of this low pay scandal.
Our revelation comes as detainees prepare to challenge the low pay scheme at the High Court in London next month, where their lawyers will argue that the current policy of paying detainees £1 an hour is unlawful, and seek damages. Philip Armitage, a lawyer at Duncan Lewis who is representing the detainees, said: “The policy speaks to the way detainees are treated and how their dignity is not respected. They are basically cleaning their own detention centre for £1 per hour. It is time this exploitative practice is brought to an end."
It is expected that the Home Office will defend its position in court by arguing that the jobs are only intended to "occupy detainees and alleviate their boredom". The department has long claimed that the "practice is not a substitute for the work of trained staff", and that detainees are not "employees" for the purposes of employment law. (Companies like Uber and Deliveroo have also tried to use similar legal loopholes to deny various rights to their workers.)
Despite these claims, VICE has obtained more new evidence that seriously undermines the government’s stance, and exposes that some detainees are virtually permanent members of staff. We asked the Home Office for the top 20 longest working detainees at each centre. The department only held data for Harmondsworth and Colnbrook, two lock-ups next to Heathrow Airport. Around 100 detainees work at Harmondsworth, and 50 at Colnbrook. The data shows that while some detainees spent less than a month working there, one detainee has spent over a year (402 days) enrolled in the work scheme. Eleven other detainees had spent over 200 days in the scheme. To put this in context, the majority of people detained in the UK spend less than a month locked up.
We showed our findings to Taimour Lay, an immigration barrister at Garden Court Chambers. He told VICE that, "These latest figures paint a picture at odds with the purpose of the original regime inside detention centres. The Detention Centre Rules merely talk about 'paid activity' for the 'relief of boredom' – and that's still the government's official line on this – not regular, long-term, low-paid labour by detainees struggling to pay for necessities while inside."
Lay, who has long followed this issue, said: "Now we're seeing that a significant number of detainees are individually working hundreds of days over sustained periods. It confirms that the Home Office and the private companies are treating detainees like workers or employees without granting them the rights that should go with it."
The barrister added: "It also raises the question, of course, of why they are detained so long… If immigration detention was really envisaged to be short-term and solely for removal, you wouldn't have this elaborate, long-term system for detainee labour."
Under the rules, detainees are allowed to work up to 30 hours a week. This means that the most a detainee could earn in a year toiling for £1 an hour is just £1,560. That’s nearly £10,000 less than if they’d been earning the minimum wage. And of course, the detainee workers are not entitled to any sick pay, holiday pay or pension.
Most of Britain’s immigration detention centres are run for the Home Office by private companies like G4S and Serco, Mitie and GEO. The Home Office recently reviewed the low pay scheme and surveyed the views of these contractors. None of the contractors believed detainees should earn the minimum wage. Some suggested a small pay rise.
In the survey, G4S told the Home Office that "when it comes to asking a detainee to put his hand down a toilet to clean or asked to clean the body fat build up in the showers for £1 an hour, then we are often met with the response 'you can stuff your job'". G4S said the low pay for detainees was "why we have a high turnover for shower cleaners and room cleaners" and suggested that "the rate should be increased to attract more detainees. It would be useful to have discretion to give bonuses if detainees go out of their way to help like cleaning up sick and scrubbing toilets".
Despite this talk of "bonuses", the G4S manager only felt that the pay should be raised to either £1.25 or £1.50 an hour.
The company did at least acknowledge that the jobs are not hobbies, telling the Home Office that the main reason why detainees agreed to do the work was to "support family outside". Up to 110 detainees work at the G4S-run Brook House and Tinsley House immigration removal centres near Gatwick Airport. Kitchen shifts can be three hours long and night shifts last for 90 minutes "after lock down to clean the wing".
A Serco manager at the notorious Yarl’s Wood women’s detention centre was no more generous than G4S. They said “"1.50 per hour should be maximum for roles that hold higher responsibility and/or difficult to fill positions etc. with a £1 per hour for other activities". They reached this opinion despite noting that detainees need the money to buy "essentials", which the manager admits have become more expensive.
A Mitie manager at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook was slightly more generous, saying the pay should rise to £2.50 an hour – still far beneath the minimum wage. "Feedback from community meetings with detainees is consistent that the £1 per hour rate is too low, and some detainees state the word 'slaves'," they commented starkly. The jobs sound arduous, with detainees sometimes required to wear protective clothing and operate expensive "industrial jet sprays, hand vacuums and floor buffing machines", Mitie said.
The American private prison giant, GEO, runs the Dungavel detention centre in Scotland. It said the pay should rise to at least £2 an hour. It recommended that people doing skilled work such as painting or "plastering" should receive £2.50 an hour – suggesting that detainees are being used to carry out serious repair jobs inside the centre.
The survey found the companies felt the detainee workers were worth no more than £2.50 an hour – pretty cheap for a plasterer and still a third of the minimum wage. Still, the companies were more generous than the government, who are quite content to leave it at £1 an hour.
A spokesperson for the Home Office told VICE: "The longstanding practice of offering paid activities to people in immigration detention centres has been praised by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons as it helps to keep them occupied whilst their removal is being arranged.
"Whether or not they wish to participate is entirely up to the detainees themselves, but the numbers of detainees volunteering for paid activities across the detention estate is evidence that the jobs are popular.
"Detainees can only undertake a maximum of 30 hours of voluntary paid activity a week and can do as much or as little as they want within the 30 hour cap."