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Preventing labour exploitation: who pays the price?

January 10, 2018

Theresa May has declared war on the scourge of ‘modern slavery’, promising to defeat this ‘vile business model’ at its source. However, so far this has been treated as a problem imported from elsewhere and the government has shown little understanding of the ways in which its own policies ignore or even facilitate the risk of exploitation in the UK labour market. Despite recognising the need to reform the UK labour market in response to the risks to workers brought about by the rise in precarious work, as set out last year in the Taylor review of modern working practices, little attention has been paid to the enforcement of existing labour rights and standards.

The UK has derived some of our key employment rights from the EU, but FLEX’s latest report Risky Business: Tackling Exploitation in the UK Labour Market has found that the UK lags far behind our European neighbours in our capacity to enforce them. The UK spends only £7.70 per worker on enforcement activity, just half of the £14.40 dedicated by our closest neighbour, Ireland. This is just a third of the amount invested by Norway. Numbers of ‘boots on the ground’ are also shockingly low; with just 0.4 labour inspectors for every 10,000 workers the UK falls far below the International Labour Organisation’s recommended standard of 1 inspector per 10,000 workers. Poland, for example, deploys the equivalent of double this number of inspectors, at 0.8 per 10,000 workers.

When employment rights are not proactively enforced, this leaves dubious and sometimes outright exploitative employment practices unchallenged and renders labour rights useless. As FLEX research has shown, when labour abuses go unchecked, this opens the door to severe forms of exploitation and even modern slavery. On the flip side, when workers are empowered to access their rights and these standards are properly enforced, exploitation cannot thrive. Modern slavery therefore cannot be defeated without taking the protection and enforcement of employment rights as a core feature of the UK’s prevention strategy.

Though experts have long been calling for the extension of the remit of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority to cover the whole labour market, the inspectorate’s expansion in 2016 was not met with an equivalent increase in funding. Without adequate investment, this positive step toward labour-market-wide protection for workers will remain on paper only. A recent parliamentary report recognised this urgent need for more resources for workplace inspection, revealing the shocking news that at present, employers can expect an inspection once every 500 years.

If the government is serious about eradicating modern slavery, it must put its money where its mouth is. We simply cannot tackle the pervasive abusive and exploitative practices that lead to severe exploitation if inspectorates lack the capacity to build in-depth knowledge of risk, conduct proactive inspection and investigation, and champion widespread awareness-raising among businesses and workers alike. Without adequate resources to protect and enforce our rights at work, and prevent labour exploitation, it is vulnerable workers who will continue to pay the price.