In the first of our election manifesto reviews FLEX considers what the Labour Party Manifesto means for labour exploitation.
In the main there is a surprising lack of detail on the Party’s plans to tackle exploitation and the labour abuses that lead to exploitation. Promises are broad and not coupled with a pragmatic analysis of how existing structures could be improved, altered or abolished to improve the current response to labour exploitation. However, where there is detail Labour makes some exciting pledges that, if effectively implemented, could serve to improve worker’s access to remedies, promote employment rights, prevent abuses and exploitation.
Starting with the positives, Labour’s proposed ‘EU Rights and Protections Bill’ that will guarantee the retention of workers rights, workplace laws and equality law after Brexit would give much needed reassurances to workers made vulnerable by Brexit uncertainty. Labour promises to ensure that labour rights are not undermined by future trade agreements, something about which FLEX has raised serious concerns. Pledges to end zero hour contracts, to address short hours contracts and to shift the burden of proof of self-employed status to the employer would lift many workers out of precarious employment, and a life in poverty. There are many strong pledges on Trade Unions, including a guaranteed right to enter workplaces, offering more workers the opportunity of empowerment through collective bargaining. Finally an end to employment tribunal fees is promised, which if implemented – along with the reinstatement of legal aid, also considered – would see vulnerable and impoverished workers once again able to seek remedy for labour abuses through Employment Tribunals.
Where the Labour Manifesto addresses exploitation or ‘modern slavery’ directly little detail is provided, leaving us second-guessing on the real substance on this issue. To address exploitation, Labour says it will ‘stop overseas-only recruitment practices, strengthen safety-at- work inspections […] increase prosecutions of employers evading the minimum wage’ and work ‘with trade unions’. To stop ‘modern slavery’ it will ensure border controls are in place, restore the rights of migrant domestic workers, work with business to ensure the Modern Slavery Act is ‘respected’ and extend the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator.
All of the above are decent pledges but the question of how and in what form arises and FLEX would look forward to working with Labour if elected to add substance to these promises. A real concern relates to the general focus of Labour’s approach to exploitation. Most of the detail on this issue can be found in a section on immigration with interest in exploitation limited to the undercutting of UK workers pay by migrant workers. This makes for disappointing reading, is a line repeated from the 2015 Labour Manifesto, and seems to miss the point that no worker seeks to ‘undercut’ others but is made vulnerable to abuse and exploitation when employment laws are flouted.
When it comes to the most vulnerable and most at risk of exploitation, there is little information about how Labour will tackle key issues head on. On the gateways to advice for marginalized and vulnerable workers, it offers no detail. On the identification of labour abuses and enforcement of employment law it suggests establishing a Ministry of Labour – the budget for which is not included in its costings document. The new Ministry of Labour seems to be in place of engaging, improving or reforming existing UK labour inspection authorities, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the Health and Safety Executive, the Employment Agencies Standards Inspectorate and the National Minimum Wage enforcement teams. This un-costed proposal sounds interesting but somewhat fanciful given these existing authorities are so desperately under funded.
On workers rights Labour makes strong promises in this Manifesto, reducing precarious working, securing access to remedies and guaranteeing protections as Brexit negotiations are advanced. But, when it comes to workers most at risk, an understanding of what drives exploitation is absent as is the readiness to engage with and improve existing structures.