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Modern employment and modern slavery: how do changes in employment practices open the door to exploitation?

March 8, 2017

Rapid increases in self-employment, zero-hours contracts, and agency work are transforming the way we do business and the way we work, moving towards ever more ‘flexible’ models of employment. Flexibility can offer advantages for both businesses dealing with fluctuating demand for goods and services and for employees dealing with the demands of modern life. However, though an attractive prospect for many, in a system where employment rights are determined by employment status the shift to ‘flexible’ models in practice means a weakening of rights and protections for the workforce. This can have serious consequences, particularly for those who are most reliant on low-paid, increasingly insecure jobs. Amid this burgeoning emphasis on ‘choice’ in the UK labour market, it is important to ask: who chooses and who loses as a result of these changes?

This question has been taken up by the government in a review of ‘Employment Practices in the Modern Economy’, led by Matthew Taylor. The review will run until May 2017 and will consider ‘the implications of new forms of work on worker rights and responsibilities – as well as on employer freedoms and obligations.’1 Recent debates on the rise of the ‘gig’ economy have highlighted the risks for temporary and low-paid workers who are effectively forced into ‘bogus self-employment’, working long hours for less than minimum wage. Unlike employees, the self-employed are not entitled to basic protections such as working time protections, sick pay, minimum wage or protection against unfair dismissal. Today’s budget announcement also increased the tax burden on the self-employed, taking steps to address perceived benefits of this employment status without yet moving to tackle the problems associated with self-employment. The Taylor review therefore offers a real opportunity to make progress in this area.

Speaking to the Guardian about the ongoing review, Taylor commented: “Flexibility is a positive choice for most workers. But there is clearly growth in forms of work, particularly agency work and zero hours, where the power relationship is not balanced, people’s position can feel precarious and it can be harder for them to exercise their rights.” This link between power, precarity at work and the ability to exercise rights is crucial to understanding how ‘modern employment’ can open the door to modern slavery if it is not properly and proactively monitored. In many sectors the shift to reliance on a flexible workforce means that the risks of fluctuating demand and downward pressure on costs is passed from the employer to the worker, as low pay and irregular hours render them increasingly dependent and powerless to access the few rights they have. Flexibility is about freedom to choose – but for many, accepting precarious work with limited rights is not a choice but a necessity for survival. Where choice is removed and rights are weakened, people are left extremely vulnerable to exploitation.

The Labour Exploitation Advisory Group (LEAG) have shown that precarious work in low-paid, unregulated labour sectors can create the perfect conditions for labour abuses to thrive and develop, sometimes into situations of extreme exploitation and forced labour. At the low-skilled, low-paid end of the labour market, reliance and fear are exacerbated by the instability and poor wages often associated with zero-hours contracts and agency work. This leaves workers with little choice but to accept work in poor conditions with few rights, unwilling to complain and risk losing their job altogether. In this setting, lack of accountability and limited avenues to remedy abuse mean that unscrupulous employers are able to act with impunity. As this research shows, the current frameworks for addressing modern slavery set too high a threshold for intervention, ignoring endemic non-compliance and labour abuse which too often develops into severe exploitation.

FLEX has warned that deregulation of the UK labour market combined with budget cuts to its already under-resourced labour inspectorates seriously undermines the government’s own stated aim of eradicating modern slavery. Human trafficking, forced labour and exploitation can neither be effectively prevented nor detected without a strong system for the enforcement of labour rights. At the same time, it is crucial to examine the labour market practices and structures which allow such rights to be removed or abused to the point of exploitation. The Taylor review provides an opportunity to do just that. FLEX looks forward to the findings of the review and urges the government to respond by closing gaps in protections for workers, and preventing exploitation by extending and enforcing employment rights across the UK labour market.