Under what circumstances can the illegal work status of a migrant worker bar a statutory tort claim for race discrimination through the common law doctrine of illegality? Such a question is due to be considered later this month by the United Kingdom Supreme Court in an appeal from the Court of Appeal decision in Allen v Hounga. Ms Hounga arrived in the UK from Nigeria in 2007 to work as a domestic worker for Mr and Mrs Allen. Her age was indeterminate but she may have been as young as fourteen when she entered the arrangement. Despite the promise of schooling, Ms Hounga never had an opportunity to get an education, and it was alleged that she suffered serious physical abuse at the hands of Mrs Allen. Eventually, she was ejected from the house and, having slept rough, Ms Hounga was found wandering in a distressed state in a supermarket car park. According to the Court of Appeal, Ms Hounga’s race discrimination claim was ‘inextricably bound up’ with the illegality in question and so to permit her compensation would be to appear to condone her unlawful conduct. In the eyes of many commentators, Hounga marked a new low for common law reasoning in the sphere of statutory employment rights. This was compounded by the context of legally sanctioned exploitation of a particularly vulnerable migrant worker, whose vulnerability had been constructed by the legal order in the first place, a situation that can also be described as ‘legislative precariousness’.
The narrowest approach to the legal issue would be to consider the Court of Appeal’s holding in Hounga with respect to legal authority. Rimer LJ in the Court of Appeal purported to follow the approach to illegality set out in the earlier case of Hall v Woolston Leisure. In Hall the Court of Appeal had insisted on a strict causation test. In Hounga this had been loosened to encompass situations where the illegality was merely ‘linked’ to the discrimination claim. Perhaps a better approach to formulate the question in the way that Lord Hoffmann did in the House of Lords decision in Gray v Thames Trains: ‘Can one say that, although the damage would not have happened but for the tortious conduct of the defendant, it was caused by the criminal act of the claimant? …or is the position that although the damage would not have happened without the criminal act of the claimant, it was caused by the tortious act of the defendant?’ If we pose the question in this way on the facts in Hounga, then the gist of the tort – the violation of Ms Hounga’s right not to be discriminated against because of her race – was caused by the tortious act of the defendant. That should be the end of the causation enquiry. And perhaps the Supreme Court might be content to dispose of the case on that narrow basis, ensuring the internal coherence of the common law doctrine of illegality in accordance with the precedents in Hall and Gray. Certainly, there are recent examples of the Employment Appeal Tribunal dealing with the illegality doctrine in a manner that is more sensitive to the various legitimate interests at stake, while reasoning within the four corners of the illegality doctrine.
There is a larger set of perspectives, however, given that Hounga sits at the intersection between labour law, human rights and migration law. Rather than refine the common law doctrine of illegality and ensure its internal coherence, it may be appropriate to consider whether illegality should have any role at all in this regulatory sphere. It might be helpful to consider this from two different vantage points, one that characterizes Hounga as a ‘labour law’ case; the other of which characterizes Hounga as a ‘migration’ case. It might be useful to regard both kinds of approach as based upon an anti-exploitation principle, which would set itself against unfair-advantage taking in the employment context. From a labour law perspective, the unfairness consists in the violation of legal rights that exist for the protection of those engaged in personal work. From a migration law perspective, the unfairness consists in the targeting of an especially vulnerable group within the wider category of personal work relations, viz migrants working illegally. Human rights issues arise in both of these perspectives.
If we take first the ‘labour law’ perspective, there is a respectable argument to be made that there is something special about labour rights, or a subset of labour rights that can be classified as human rights, that means that illegality should be excluded entirely from this regulatory context. At its broadest, it is possible to argue that all labour rights should be insulated from the illegality doctrine. Labour rights, such as the right not to be unfairly dismissed or working time protections, are not simply rights that benefit the individual worker implicated in illegality. These rights are also justified in their contribution to a wider public good, ensuring a culture of respect for workers’ rights in a well-functioning labour market that promotes decent work. Illegality should not be permitted to impede this public good by inculcating an ethic of disregard for employment rights amongst unscrupulous employers. Illegality also adds an extra incentive to employ undocumented migrant workers by ensuring a supply of labour that is cheaper still through the denial of basic employment rights. An intermediate labour law approach might be to focus on those employment rights that are reciprocally bound up with the provision of work, so that denial of the right corresponds to an unjust enrichment for the employer who has already had the benefit of the work. The obvious example here is the provision of back pay or the right to paid annual leave.
The narrowest labour law perspective would focus on a tighter category of fundamental human rights, such as the right not to be discriminated against because of race or sex, the prohibition of forced labour or freedom of association. The fundamentality of these human rights means that any illegality of the claimant should be disregarded. There would be something unconscionable for a legal system to permit the violation of fundamental human rights in circumstances of illegality; it would undermine the “integrity of the legal system” which, after all, is one of the functional concerns of the illegality doctrine itself. In Hall both Peter Gibson L.J. and Mance L.J. identified the sex discrimination claim as vindicating the claimant’s fundamental human right not to be discriminated against on grounds of sex. This fundamental rights dimension was a vital factor in insulating the statutory tort claim from the doctrine of illegality. This labour law perspective, focused on the nature of the legal right, would treat the migration dimension to Hounga as part of the background context, but not especially salient. It might be regarded as an extra attraction of this approach that in avoiding a focus on whether labour was forced or a person was trafficked, it avoids the implicit legitimization of other situations where an employer violates the fundamental human rights of workers (whether or not migrants) behind the protective cloak of illegality.
By contrast, the ‘migration law’ perspective would focus on the distinctive nature of the claimant in Hounga as a member of an especially vulnerable group within the labour market. In respect of their labour rights, undocumented migrant workers are effectively ‘outlaws’. The doctrine of illegality exacerbates their existing vulnerability through the law, and makes them even more prone to exploitation than other migrant workers. This seems difficult to defend even from the perspective of migration policy itself. For just as migration policy is concerned to regulate and restrict migration, it is equally concerned to ameliorate the circumstances of extreme exploitation that can be classified as ‘modern slavery’, which might be thought to characterize the situation of claimants such as Ms Hounga.
In terms of European human rights law, this situation can raise issues under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which may provide the tools to address workers’ exploitation in certain circumstances. The Convention protects the rights of everyone within the Contracting States’ jurisdiction (article 1 ECHR), without drawing any distinction on the basis of nationality. Article 4 of the ECHR, which is an absolute provision, prohibits slavery, servitude, forced and compulsory labour. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has previously examined the exploitation of a migrant domestic worker in the case of Siliadin v France, which had similarities with Hounga (but without the element of physical abuse). The ECtHR recognized the applicant’s vulnerability, whose passport had been confiscated, and ruled that she was held in servitude, forced and compulsory labour, which should be criminalized. Even though the focus was on criminalization, the Court did not rule out that other labour protective legislation may be required. In terms of the legal regime that the doctrine of illegality sets up for the undocumented, the case Rantsev v Cyprus and Russia is also important to highlight. In that case, which involved a victim of sex trafficking, the ECtHR held that an immigration regime (that of the ‘artiste visa’ in that case) limited the freedom of Rantseva to such a degree that it violated article 4. The doctrine of illegality may raise similar issues, as it limits the undocumented workers’ freedom to an extreme, leaving them in a legal black hole.
The prohibition of discrimination (article 14 ECHR) taken together with the right to the peaceful enjoyment of one’s possessions (article 1 of Protocol 1 ECHR) may also be at stake in cases of an illegal contract of employment. Should a worker not be awarded her salaries, the Court may view this as discrimination in the enjoyment of her possessions, as salaries have been classified as possessions in the case law. The ECtHR has explored the social rights of a documented migrant in Gaygusuz v Austria, and ruled that for a difference of treatment on the basis of immigration status to be justified, ‘very weighty reasons would have to be put forward before the Court’. The control of immigration may be a legitimate aim, but the means employed to meet the aim may violate the Convention.
The ECtHR has not examined the rights of undocumented workers under the prohibition of discrimination in conjunction with other Convention rights. However, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights addressed the issue in its advisory opinion ‘Juridical Condition and Rights of the Undocumented Migrants’. In this context, the Court referred to the vulnerable status of migrants and emphasised that their human tights should be protected regardless of their legal status. It stated that workers’ rights can only be dependent on the status of someone as a worker, and not on the status of someone as a lawful migrant:
‘Labor rights necessarily arise from the circumstance of being a worker, understood in the broadest sense. A person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity, immediately becomes a worker and, consequently, acquires the rights inherent in that condition […] [T]he migratory status of a person can never be a justification for depriving him of the enjoyment and exercise of his human rights, including those related to employment.’
This opinion suggests that fundamental labour rights found in legislation cannot be made conditional upon immigration status because this violates the prohibition of discrimination. The Inter-American Court accepted that states have a sovereign power to deny employment to undocumented migrants. However, once they are employed, they should be protected equally to other workers. The list of rights that undocumented workers must enjoy, on this analysis, does not only include the ILO’s fundamental rights at work. It also encompasses fair pay, reasonable working hours, health and safety rules and other fundamental labour rights.
Hounga is possibly the most important employment case yet to be considered by the United Kingdom Supreme Court. We hope that it takes the opportunity to step beyond the formalism of a narrow approach to the illegality point, sensitive to the wider human rights issues. Nothing less than the integrity of the English legal system is at stake.
Alan Bogg is Professor of Labour Law; Fellow and Tutor in Law, Hertford College, University of Oxford.
Virginia Mantouvalou is Reader in Human Rights and Labour Law and Co-Director of the Institute of Human Rights, University College London (UCL).
This piece has also been endorsed by Professor Hugh Collins (Oxford), Dr Nicola Countouris (UCL), Dr Cathryn Costello (Oxford), Professor Mark Freedland (Oxford), John Hendy QC (UCL) and Professor Tonia Novitz (Bristol).
Suggested citation: A. Bogg and V. Mantouvalou,’Illegality, Human Rights and Employment: A Watershed Moment for the United Kingdom Supreme Court?’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (13th March 2014) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)