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  • General Immigration

Paying the price of illegal workers – is your business at risk of Home Office fines?


Any business that employs workers must meet onerous and diverse requirements. Are there appropriate health and safety measure in place? Has the correct information been given to HMRC? There is a lot to remember and to arrange, but one of the costliest mistakes comes right at the start of the process, perhaps before the employee has started their first shift: have there been robust checks to confirm a right to work? Failing to check the right to work can have serious repercussions. If the individual is in fact an illegal worker (eg someone without immigration status permitting work), their employment can lead to a fine for the business of up to £20,000 or – if the employer knew or had ‘reasonable cause to believe’ that no right to work was held – a prison sentence of up to 5 years.

For the Home Office, illegal working can be big business. Between 01 October 2018 and the end of the year, civil penalties to the value of £7,775,000 were issued to businesses across the UK. Approximately £1,000,000 of that was in the North West. In addition to the financial cost, there is a serious reputational risk posed by receiving penalties for illegal workers. For large employers, national news coverage will follow. Despite nearly 7 years passing since Tesco was fined £115,000 for allowing 23 students to work longer hours than their visas permitted, details of the story are still easily found via a generic Google search. In 2016 Byron Burger made headlines simply by co-operating with the Home Office as 35 of their staff were arrested in connection with false immigration documents. Byron suffered no fines but calls to boycott the chain in protest at their ‘collusion’ were widely shared on social media. Smaller companies are not immune to attention. Where penalties go unpaid, details of the business (including their trading name and address) are published publicly on the Home Office website, with full details of the value of the penalty imposed. Today you can still view all 31 of the North West businesses who had not paid their fines for the Oct-Dec 2018 period by the required deadline.

Analysis of the Home Office data shows that the profile of your business might make you more susceptible to investigation in respect of illegal workers. Of the 31 employers mentioned above, 21 are restaurants or takeaways, and a further 7 are small retailers of groceries or wholesale traders. The Home Office clearly targets businesses of this type in the hope of uncovering illegal work and is regularly successful.

So how to avoid the penalties? The most obvious advice is to check the identity and immigration status of every employee before they start work. Where workers are not British, European or otherwise settled in the UK, re-check their status as and when required. Keep clear records of checks conducted, and copies of ID documents seen. If an employer robustly checks identity, penalties cannot be imposed. Consider the example of Byron Burger; 35 employees were arrested but there were no fines for the business. The reason is because Byron had strong processes in place to confirm a right to work. Although the documents for a small number of workers turned out to be forged, Byron had conducted reasonable checks and was not to be penalised for that.

Latitude Law offers specialist services associated with illegal working. If you feel unsure about how to check right to work thoroughly, we can train you and your staff so that mistakes (and penalties) can be avoided. If you believe your system might have some flaws, we can conduct a dummy compliance visit at your premises and identify steps you can take to minimise risk. If the worst happens and you are given a penalty, Latitude can assist with your contact with the Home Office to negotiate reductions, or even cancellation of any fines imposed.

If you would like to speak with one of our experts, call us now on 0161 234 6800 (Manchester and London offices) or 0151 305 9600 (Liverpool office).