Last month the UK’s first Director of Labour Market Enforcement (DLME), Sir David Metcalf, published his Annual Strategy. In it he sets out his vision of what is needed to protect workers from abuses and exploitation in the UK labour market. He draws a clear connecting line between labour abuses, exploitation and ‘modern slavery’ so that “the whole spectrum of behaviour can be tackled in a coherent and effective manner”. For FLEX, this commitment is crucial; without these links being drawn, the modern slavery response risks separation from the response to widespread labour abuses, which we know does not work.
The report provides a useful summary of the current enforcement capacity, resources and remit of key labour inspectorates. It also sets out some red lines early in Sir David’s tenure. He rules out a single labour inspectorate at this stage, and seeks to make it clear that he does not see immigration enforcement as falling within his remit. It remains unclear what the DLME’s position is on partnership operations and intelligence sharing between labour inspectorates and immigration enforcement, an approach that has been widely criticised for weakening worker trust and limiting the reporting of abuses.
Working with frontline organisations
Much of FLEX’s evidence to the DLME is included in the Strategy. We were pleased to see recognition, for example, of the need to build trust in at-risk workers to ensure they have the confidence to engage with labour inspectorates. A key way of doing this is through engagement with organisations working directly with those at risk of exploitation, such as members of the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group (LEAG). When we met, LEAG told the DLME that they were frustrated at the lack of clear feedback from enforcement bodies when abuses are raised on behalf of workers. The report makes a welcome recommendation that information provided to labour inspectorates and the DLME intelligence hub be shared through formal feedback mechanisms.
‘Joint liability’ to address exploitation in supply chains
When the DLME looks at how to improve labour market enforcement, his solutions are often in line with FLEX’s views. He considers, for example, FLEX’s suggestion that suppliers be linked to the bigger, often more public facing company at the top of the supply chain, through a system of joint and several liability. FLEX has seen joint and several liability used to prevent and address cases of modern slavery. Ultimately the DLME favours a system he calls ‘joint responsibility’, where a private discussion is held with the head of the chain and relevant supplier where abuses are identified, followed up after three months by an enforcement body. It will be interesting to follow how this private, ‘cooperative approach’ as the DLME calls it, will work to prevent abuses and exploitation.
Resources for labour inspectorates
FLEX has long advocated for greater resources for labour inspectorates, including the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) and the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate (EAS). The GLAA, which views itself as the UK’s ‘anti-slavery police’, has a staff of 104 and is responsible for licensing and monitoring 1,000 labour providers supplying half a million workers to the UK labour market, alongside its modern slavery identification work. Instead of proposing increased resources for the GLAA, the DLME suggests the use of resources be improved and recommends on-going monitoring and assessment of the work of all enforcement bodies. Whilst this is important, it is also vital that the GLAA gain extra resources to enable it to do its job properly. The GLAA has seen an expansion of its remit from a handful of labour sectors to the entire labour market in the past two years along with new resource intensive police style powers, whilst the implementation of its new police powers has seen the GLAA offered a temporary budget increase, its extra labour market wide monitoring work is left unfunded. The EAS has just 12 staff and yet oversees 18,000 employment agencies and 1.1 million workers. Its approach is extremely light touch, focussed on informing agencies where abuses have been found. The DLME recommends a welcome increase in resources for the EAS, with which perhaps it will have more teeth.
Expansion of licensing in key labour sectors
Many, including FLEX, have also called for the GLAA licensing system to be expanded beyond its existing food and food processing sectors. While the DLME suggests pilot licensing schemes in the nail bar and car washing sectors, he stops short of recommending any significant industry expansion. As with the question of resourcing for the GLAA’s important work, the thorny issue of licensing is left for another day, with a commitment from the DLME to commission further research to inform any future proposals. This is understandable, since without funding to enable licensing work to take place, a commitment to significant expansion would be meaningless. An independent academic review of the GLAA licensing system with reflection on its value for money would provide a good foundation for future recommendations in this area.
Preventing gender based violence in the workplace
Crucial to the shape of labour market enforcement is the way in which enforcement bodies relate to women workers and the particular abuses faced by women. FLEX set out an agenda for change on this in our recent Five Point Plan to Combat Exploitation of women in the workplace. Indeed this topic is considered so important that the International Labour Conference is currently discussing the adoption of a new standard to end gender based violence and sexual harassment in the workplace. The DLME acknowledges that women face particular obstacles in reporting abuses and advocates pro-active enforcement in order to overcome this. FLEX has already started work with labour inspectorates to achieve this, and welcomes the DLME’s support.
This Strategy is just the beginning of the DLME’s work; it does not attempt to set out a complete picture of the scale of the problem, nor does it have all the solutions. It is disappointing not to see stronger recommendations for the work of the GLAA nor to make more progress in efforts to achieve transparency in company supply chains by providing stick to existing corporate accountability reporting. However, the DLME is right to have taken an approach guided by evidence and to be cautious of suggesting major changes without adequate resources. His Strategy represents a step in the right direction towards improving the early identification of labour abuses to prevent exploitation, and FLEX hopes to see this pro-active approach become a key part of the future modern slavery response.