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New research project to explore extent of labour market abuses faced by precarious workers in the UK

June 14, 2022

Photo by Nathalia Segato, Unsplash

FLEX is pleased to announce our involvement in an important new research project which will explore the scale and nature of labour market non-compliance in the UK, with a particular focus on precarious work. The research will result in the first representative assessment of the extent of labour abuses faced by precarious workers in the UK, as well as providing in-depth evidence of workers’ and employers’ experiences of these issues.

Commissioned by the Director of Labour Market Enforcement and co-funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the project is led by Dr Ella Cockbain and Dr Krisztián Pósch from University College London’s Department of Security and Crime Science.

Why this research is needed

Having a labour market enforcement system that effectively protects workers against non-compliance is a fundamental part of preventing exploitation. Not only is tackling routinised abuses important in itself, but it may also discourage an escalation into more extreme harms, as Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, has argued.

Labour market enforcement is especially important when workers are precarious and face barriers to enforcing their own rights at work. In FLEX’s research with workers in cleaning and hospitality, approximately 20% of survey respondents said they had been afraid of losing work or having their hours cut if they reported or complained about harassment or abuse at work, while in the app-based delivery sector 16% of respondents said they had been afraid of having their account with a platform company terminated for the same reason. It is not realistic to expect individual workers in precarious employment to speak out against non-compliance, as in doing so they risk losing their job. Having trusted organisations that proactively seek out and put a stop to labour market non-compliance is crucial for such workers, and for the labour force more broadly.

Effective and targeted labour market enforcement relies on good data and a practical understanding about the nature and scale of employment standards violations, and which demographic groups, communities and sectors are most affected. Unfortunately, due to the hidden nature of non-compliance, there are considerable gaps in the available evidence. It is these evidence gaps that this project aims to address.

FLEX’s role in the project

Alongside the large-scale, representative survey (which will be administered as an Associated Study to the Understanding Society survey), the research will involve in-depth interviews with people in precarious work and focus groups with precarious workers and employers to add depth and nuance and help inform a policy response which will deliver in practice.

Drawing on our experience in this space, FLEX has been commissioned to advise on the focus groups and provide training to the research team. In addition, we will be organising four worker advisory groups that will take place over the project’s lifetime. These advisory groups will help ensure workers’ voices are listened to, drawing on valuable lived experience to help shape the design and delivery of the research and assist in the interpretation of the research findings and their implications for efforts to tackle labour market abuse. There will also be various other advisory groups, including a worker representative group, to which FLEX will contribute based on our research, policy, and advocacy work in this space.

We will start recruiting people to join the worker advisory groups soon, with the aim of involving as diverse a group as possible in terms of sector, employment status, and personal characteristics, including age, gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality, among others. Anyone interested in participating should contact FLEX via e-mail at [email protected]. The advisory groups will be online, and participants will be compensated for their time.

For further news from the study, please visit the project website.