FLEX launches action plan to tackle labour exploitation in the UK

Publication19 Oct 2017

Today Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) launches a ground breaking report: Risky Business: Tackling Exploitation in the UK Labour Market. An advance copy of this report was shared with the UK Director of Labour Market Enforcement who is working on the UK labour enforcement strategy. Risky Business sets out, for the first time, the key risks of exploitation for many workers in the UK labour market and then proposes a blueprint for action to prevent exploitation.  

FLEX is the only UK organisation dedicated to combatting trafficking for labour exploitation. For the first time, Risky Business, sets out the reasons why workers are exploited in the UK. In so doing, we offer targeted solutions to the problem, looking to international examples for what works and where mistakes have been made.

The report covers the four key areas:  

A UK picture of risk

Workers can end up in severe exploitation because of ongoing labour abuses and employment relationships as well as restrictions on their migration status, welfare support or absent workplace oversight. Many of these risks are well documented: precarious working arrangements; one-sided flexibility in the workplace; wage deductions, no holiday or no pay. The stories we have documented from those identified as trafficked confirm this picture of risk. In order to prevent these factors from leading to exploitation, FLEX has called upon the UK Director of Labour Market Enforcement to build a strong, evidence based picture of risk in the UK labour market, and to make sure the labour inspection authorities are proactive in detecting and preventing abuse in high-risk sectors.

Labour inspection and enforcement

Risky Business finds that the UK is lagging far behind other European labour inspectorates, with just 0.4 labour inspectors per ten thousand workers. This is way below the International Labour Organisation’s recommended one to ten thousand figure; half the 0.8 Poland has; and under a third of the 1.3 inspectors per ten thousand workers deployed by Norway. FLEX finds the UK’s closest neighbour, Ireland, spends almost double that of the UK on labour enforcement: £14.40 per worker in Ireland compared to £7.70 per worker in the UK.

In the face of such limited resources, UK labour market enforcement operates largely reactively, responding to complaints from workers. Yet FLEX’s report shows that just 0.8% of all workers estimated not to have been paid the national minimum wage in 2016/17 actually reported the situation to the main UK helpline designed for this purpose. Reactive labour inspection relies on workers reporting abuse, which means that exploitation may go undetected in cases where workers are unable to come forward.

Finally, despite widely recognised evidence that traffickers hold people in exploitation by threatening immigration control repercussions, arrest and deportation, immigration enforcement is playing an increasingly prominent role in modern slavery responses. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) makes clear that the role of labour inspectors is to ensure workers’ rights are upheld and protected, not to combat undocumented working. ILO Convention 81 also makes explicit that labour inspector activity should be focussed on enforcement and compliance with labour law, and the ILO has criticised countries for letting immigration concerns deviate labour inspectors from this path. If labour inspectorates are to do the job of protecting workers, all workers must feel safe to report problems. For this reason, we call for a strict firewall between labour inspection and immigration enforcement. 

Reporting abuse

Many problems go unreported because workers are not able to get the information and advice they need to understand their employment rights and seek help when they are being abused. Members of FLEX’s Labour Exploitation Advisory Group who assist vulnerable workers see many workers, and migrant workers in particular, prevented from reporting abuse and exploitation because they find advice services such as the Acas helpline confusing, time-consuming and inaccessible to those whose first language is not English. Existing helplines need to be better advertised and their services improved to allow all workers to find, understand and use them easily.

In its research FLEX has heard of many countries that have clear and singular channels of communication for workers to report labour abuses and exploitation. The UK has a range of different reporting channels for different situations, that often leave workers feeling confused and see them abandoning their intention to report cases. FLEX has recommended an overarching information gateway to ensure that all workers are able to report abuses quickly, simply and effectively. Some workers also worry that in reporting cases they will be referred to immigration enforcement; the facility for anonymous reporting is therefore critical.

Taking leadership on modern slavery in supply chains

The UK Modern Slavery Act includes a requirement for businesses with a turnover above £36 million to report on what they are doing identify and prevent modern slavery. However, whilst this measure was aimed at creating a level playing field, evidence shows that where a company does not have a reputation at stake this light-touch approach has limited effect. Over half of those businesses covered by the provision remain silent on their modern slavery activities and the government is yet to compel anyone to report.

In Risky Business, FLEX has looked at what is being done elsewhere to hold business to account: laws that limit the number of layers in a supply chain could make it easier for businesses to monitor the treatment of workers; making businesses jointly liable for abuses or exploitation by subcontractors and giving labour inspectorates a role in helping to ensure businesses know what is happening throughout their supply chain also offers a powerful incentive to improve labour conditions; and finally where governments lead by example by making those businesses they fund through public procurement comply with meaningful steps towards better labour conditions for all those working in their supply chains.

FLEX’s action plan is comprised of three simple steps: open channels through which workers might communicate abuse; inspect workplaces and enforce labour law; and take leadership on modern slavery in supply chains rather than leaving business to their own devices. 

Download the full report here.