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New Briefing: No Worker Left Behind – how might the COVID-19 pandemic impact worker exploitation?

April 9, 2020

Today FLEX publishes a new briefing examining how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the risk of labour exploitation.

At FLEX, we know that labour exploitation is part of a spectrum of working conditions ranging from decent conditions, through abuses such as underpayment and culminating at the sharp end in criminal forms of exploitation such as forced labour and other modern slavery offences.

While no one is inherently vulnerable to exploitation, some people experience heightened risk as a result of their personal (e.g. gender, age), situational (e.g. migration status, employment type) and/or circumstantial (e.g. economic destitution) vulnerabilities.

This new briefing assesses the economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on the most vulnerable groups of workers:

  • Workers in low-paid and insecure work
  • Migrant workers
  • Women workers

To do this, ‘No worker left behind: protecting vulnerable workers from exploitation during and after the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’ draws on interviews with workers and frontline services and proposes emergency measures to ensure all workers are protected against financial destitution and exploitation while the UK works to contain the virus and its impact.

It finds that:

  1. The welcome and vital financial support measures introduced by government since the outbreak fail to cover significant groups of workers, leaving them at risk of destitution and more vulnerable to exploitation (see Table 1 in the briefing).
  2. Low-paid workers are being laid off, denied entitlements and threatened with dismissal, which is putting them at higher risk of destitution. Unable to afford food and other basic necessities, low-paid workers become extremely vulnerable to labour exploitation, as they find themselves with no viable alternatives and are unable to say ‘no’ to unsafe and/or abusive working conditions.
  3. Low-paid workers in sectors classified as ‘key’ or ‘essential’ are being pressured to accept unsafe conditions.
  4. Demand for workers in sectors that are already high risk for labour exploitation could lead to a rise in exploitation rates in the UK, including modern slavery offences.
  5. Women are likely to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic both in terms of increased risk of destitution and increased risk of exploitation.

Frontline organisations are already seeing low-paid workers at risk of losing their income entirely. Consistent low pay means that these workers often do not have savings to act as a buffer and are at high risk of destitution:

“The people we support, they work in low-paid casual jobs. This means they don’t have a buffer – they don’t have savings to fall back on under the current situation. We’re seeing widespread loss of work, including people who are being dismissed unlawfully. We had clients with severe respiratory problems being told they should no longer come to work because the company didn’t have protective equipment to protect them from the virus. The same thing is happening to pregnant women – they are no longer being called for jobs because they are at high risk of infection.”

East European Resource Centre

Workers experiencing pandemic-related issues and risks included security guards, nannies, domestic workers, cleaners, delivery drivers, couriers and supermarket workers. High demand for agricultural labour coupled with low-paid workers’ desperate need for alternative income could lead to a rise in exploitation.

Without the UK ensuring all workers have access to financial support and are protected from destitution or worsening conditions, we will likely see a surge in cases of exploitation in coming months, including of modern slavery offences.

The UK must ensure all workers have access to financial support so that no one feels pressured to accept exploitative employment to keep themselves from becoming destitute during this pandemic.

Based on the needs of workers currently not covered by protections and/or at high risk of harm, and aside from exploring emergency income support for all workers, the briefing recommends the following measures:

  1. Require employers to provide personal protective equipment to all those required to work.
  2. Extend Statutory Sick Pay to all workers.
  3. End the Universal Credit five-week waiting period.
  4. Suspend the No Recourse to Public Funds restriction.
  5. Classify labour inspection as ‘essential work’.
  6. Allocate emergency funds to increase labour market enforcement and advisory agencies’ capacity to respond to workers’ enquiries and reports.
  7. Extend the visas of those working under the Seasonal Workers Pilot.
  8. Provide accessible and sufficient emergency grants to frontline organisations providing advice and vital support to workers at risk of exploitation.
  9. Distribute emergency support to those who are not entitled to Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and Self-employment Income Support Scheme.
  10. Protect public health by stopping NHS charging.
  11. Prioritise public health over immigration status by suspending all immigration enforcement action.
  12. Suspend data sharing between statutory agencies and the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes.
  13. Review access to social protections with a view to long-term adequacy.

Read FLEX’s briefing on the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on low-paid migrant workers, here.