To be honest, you need to work, so I’m working. I have to work. I have to do my job. I know it’s unsafe or maybe it’s very difficult, but I have to do it.
Amine, Algerian app-based courier, Interview, 1 December 2020
Today FLEX publishes a report on the experiences of migrant workers in low-paid and insecure work during the Covid-19 pandemic, focusing on barriers to accessing employment rights and social protections, and the associated risks of labour abuse and exploitation.
No viable alternatives: Social (in)security and risk of labour exploitation during Covid-19 is the result of a partnership between FLEX, the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW), two grassroots trade unions organising and supporting workers in low-paid and insecure sectors of the economy. It is based on survey responses from 337 IWGB and UVW members, as well as interviews and focus groups with workers, trade union caseworkers, and a broad range of civil society organisations supporting people experiencing or at risk of labour exploitation.
The report focuses specifically on migrant workers in low-paid and insecure work because of the multiple, layered vulnerabilities this group faces due to their position in the labour market and restrictions related to their immigration status, such as having limited access to social security. Although these vulnerabilities existed before Covid-19, they have been made far more visible by the pandemic. The report therefore uses the Covid-19 pandemic as a case study to examine how vulnerabilities related to employment, immigration and social security policy intersect to restrict people’s options, compelling them into coercive working relationships and eroding their ability to negotiate decent work.
The social security system is meant to provide a safety net so that people can meet their basic needs even if they lose their job or become ill and are not forced to stay in or take on exploitative work to survive. When social security is not available, accessible, or enough to cover the cost of living, people become more dependent on their jobs and less able to push back against poor treatment. This report provides a basis for understanding why a well-functioning social security system is crucial for preventing labour exploitation and outlines key changes needed to ensure the UK’s social safety net does not fail the growing number of people in low-paid and insecure work.
Our research looked at workplace issues migrants in low-paid and insecure work faced during the pandemic and whether they were able to access social security measures. Our findings show considerable levels of labour abuse and barriers to accessing support, leading to risk of labour exploitation.
Key employment issues experienced by low-paid and insecure workers during the pandemic
[Sexual harassment] has doubled, tripled during the pandemic because supervisors and managers threaten workers with firing them and to avoid this, they [workers] have to go out with them [supervisors and managers], have a coffee, visit them at home. This is happening a lot. We’re concerned about it. They are demanding sexual favours in particular from female workers, taking advantage of the crisis, in exchange for not firing her or reducing her hours, or for providing a better working environment.
Cleaners and Facilities Branch Chair, IWGB, Interview, 28 April 2021
Access to key social security measures during the pandemic
[I]f you felt sick and wanted to go home to get tested, or you just wanted to be safe, you wouldn’t get paid. We were having to decide between getting paid and taking time off [to isolate], while having people to feed.
Greta, Bolivian cleaner, Focus group, 5 June 2021
The report’s findings are especially important in the current context where the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a surge in the number of people in need of welfare support, and where Brexit has led to a seismic overhaul of the UK’s immigration system, increasing the number of migrants with no or limited access to social security. However, a commitment to ‘build back better’ and achieve a fairer post-Covid-19 recovery is to acknowledge and recognise the fact that low-pay, insecurity, and lack of access to social security are not issues exclusive to current context, but already existed and will continue to exist unless we see important changes to labour market, immigration, and social security policies. Addressing these issues will also help build resilience to labour exploitation and support the UK’s commitment to tackling modern slavery. The report outlines recommendations as a starting point for government to take steps in this direction.
To address low-pay and insecurity at work
1. Determine National Minimum Wage/National Living Wage rates based on what workers and their families need to meet the cost of living, as modelled by the Living Wage Foundation.
2. Strengthen the enforcement of existing labour standards, focusing on sectors with low-pay and high rates of insecure work.
3. Address the insecurity created by zero-hours contracts.
4. Make sure employers cannot dismiss workers without a just cause or without following proper procedure.
5. Enable better trade union access to workplaces and introduce stronger rights to establish collective bargaining so that unions can negotiate secure working conditions, inform workers about their rights and entitlements, and support them to access those rights in practice.
To ensure key social security provisions provide sufficient protections beyond the pandemic
1. Reform Statutory Sick Pay so that people can afford to take time off when they are ill.
2. Reform Universal Credit so it effectively protects against poverty and destitution, enabling people to negotiate decent work and leave exploitative jobs in the knowledge that they have a safety net to fall back on.
3. The government should conduct and publish a review of the furlough scheme and its implementation, considering its effectiveness for workers in low-paid and insecure work. Lessons from this review should inform any similar future schemes so they are designed to also support the most vulnerable groups of workers.
To ensure that government policy on immigration does not bar people in need from accessing vital support
1. Repeal the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) policy, which has been shown to create and exacerbate extreme poverty and inequality.
2. Provide people with Pre-Settled Status with the same access to welfare support as those with Settled Status.
3. Ensure support is available for people to regularise their immigration status and access the social security support they are entitled to.
4. Introduce secure reporting so that people can report exploitative employers and exit exploitative situations regardless of their immigration status.
Read the full report here.
This project is supported by Unbound Philanthropy, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Trust for London
*The survey data is based on 337 responses, of which 88% were from migrants.