Currently in the UK, we have multiple enforcement bodies, each with differing names, remits, access points, etc. This creates a complex, fragmented and confusing picture for workers seeking support for abuses and for employers trying to understand their responsibilities.
Labour inspection, or labour market enforcement, is crucial if we are to protect our workforce from abuse and exploitation, including the most severe forms which fall under the Modern Slavery Act. Those forms – human trafficking, forced labour, slavery and servitude – are most often understood as ‘exceptional’; that is, they are anomalous occurrences that happen because of an offender or offending group of people. When thought about like this, labour inspection seems irrelevant because they appear to be solely a criminal justice issue. Whilst it’s true that in such cases, there will be an offender who should be brought to justice, actually these severe cases are better understood not as anomalies but as the logical product of a system in which abuses can thrive.
As expert Klara Skrivankova has described, when we allow a labour market in which basic rights and laws are continually violated, we end up with “a more general undermining of conditions of decent work”. This creates a market that is permeable to exploiters and human traffickers, as it is clear they can get away with abuse and coercion with a low likelihood of being caught. And we also know that abuses can accumulate over time, so that someone may initially be experiencing lower level forms of labour abuse, such as under-payment of wages, but this can escalate over time to situations of severe exploitation in what has been described as a “tunnel of entrapment”.
And labour abuses are thriving in the UK today. For example, our research with migrant construction workers in London last year found:
Recently published research from the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS) provides insight into feminised labour sectors, specifically cleaning, hospitality and domestic work. Their report analysed 326 cases of women supported by the service and found that:
These two pieces of research, which show endemic abusive practices in markedly different sectors, demonstrate clearly that the current system is ineffective, at least in part.
FLEX is responding to the consultation, drawing on our extensive work over the years examining the nature of UK labour inspection and what’s needed to improve it. In our view, a single enforcement body presents interesting opportunities to clarify where workers can go for help by creating a single, clear brand. It may also open up discussion space for more appropriate organisational models: FLEX is interested in the potential of a structure comparable to those in Denmark, Austria and Sweden, in which central offices are complemented by localised hubs. This would provide a clearer access point for local workers to get support and mean the inspectors on the ground have close knowledge of specific labour market issues in their area.
Overall though, a single enforcement body will only improve UK labour inspection if it’s designed in a way that meets the needs of workers and addresses current failings. That’s why we’re proposing six design principles. These are:
Our research, and that of others, has consistently noted that joint working between labour inspectorates and immigration enforcement in the UK undermines the efficacy of UK labour market enforcement with regard to migrant workers. As the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights has noted, “victims of severe labour exploitation who are in an irregular situation of residence are discouraged by their status from reporting to any public authority”.
We recommend that all workers have safe access to reporting abuse or exploitation, which means:
Despite the vital role of labour inspection in stopping labour abuse from happening, in the UK today our inspectorates are woefully underfunded:
Instead, we recommend the Government bases how much money it puts into inspection and related activities on evidence:
We recommend a principle of following international best practice in resourcing and practices, such as the World Bank recommended ratio of 60% proactive versus 40% reactive inspection and the ILO recommended ratio of 1 inspector per 10,000 workers. This would ensure the UK isn’t lagging behind the rest of the world. Arguably, this will be even more important after Brexit if we wish to attract migrant workers to come and work here.
There are serious and well-documented problems with remediation, preventing workers from gaining full justice. For example, Resolution Foundation’s recent publication, ‘From rights to reality: enforcing labour market laws in the UK’, demonstrates that employment tribunals are not being accessed by workers at higher risk of specific labour market violations. This may be due to complexity: in response to the Director of Labour Market’s 2018/19 strategy consultation, Citizens Advice noted, “among people who didn’t seek redress, our survey found that 32% didn’t do this because they thought it would be too difficult and complex…”. Other barriers are elucidated by the report, ‘Unpaid Britain: Wage Default in the British Labour Market’, which describes workers viewing the idea of making a wage claim at tribunal or County Court “with great caution” due to fear of job loss and the obstacle of fees. Even where workers do take cases to tribunal, it has been reported that claims are taking an average of eight months to be heard, which may also be deterring claims from being made in the first place.
Labour abuse and exploitation must have a gender-aware approach, as specific sectors are highly feminised and violations may present differently where gender intersects with workplace problems. It is extremely evident that this has been a missing piece in the enforcement landscape to date: in his oral evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee inquiry on enforcing the Equality Act, then Director of Labour Market Enforcement, Sir David Metcalf was asked “To what extent has the Equality Act been part of your strategy for improving the enforcement of workers’ rights?” to which he responded, “Hardly at all…”.
6. Worker Voice
We believe the people best placed to ensure working standards are decent are workers themselves, or their representatives. As such, we recommend:
All six of these design principles would ensure a fairer workforce for all and serve to uphold our labour laws more effectively than is currently happening. Whilst introducing a new body marks an opportunity to change the fundamentals of UK labour inspection, all six of these crucial areas could be addressed immediately under the current system. FLEX hopes Government will make much-needed changes to UK labour inspection, regardless of whether it goes ahead with the proposed new body. Workers in every sector and every community need them to do so.