New roadmap on preventing labour exploitation in the UK

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Following her participation in our Ethical Insights debate on combatting labour exploitation in the UK, Caroline Robinson, Policy Director at Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) blogs for us on their new action plan to prevent abuse in the UK labour market.

At FLEX, we’ve learnt through our work with individuals who have faced exploitation, that workers are often placed in a position of vulnerability by persistent labour market abuses.

We know that solutions to labour exploitation need to look at the way in which labour abuses and gaps in labour protections can lead to exploitation.

That’s why, in our report released today, we’ve set out an action plan to prevent exploitation in the UK labour market – by tackling labour abuses and ensuring labour rights are enforced to provide real protection for all workers.

Risky business

Our report Risky business: tackling exploitation in the UK labour market is a roadmap to prevent exploitation through three key steps: enforcing labour rights at work; ensuring workers can report abuse and access information; and leading the fight to drive exploitation out of company supply chains.

The United Nations Human Trafficking Protocol (2003) establishes the concept of ‘abuse of a position of vulnerability’ as a means of exploiting workers.

But what does this mean in practice? What are the factors that drive individual vulnerability? And how can we tackle these head-on, to empower workers, make sure they can access justice for abuses, and ultimately prevent people from ending up in exploitation?

FLEX’s report takes up these important questions and sets out practical solutions to prevent labour exploitation in the UK.

Through simple but crucial steps to strengthen labour market oversight, and give workers the tools they need to claim their employment rights, we can prevent unscrupulous employers from getting away with abuse and also level the playing field for compliant businesses.  

Causes and solutions

What causes vulnerability to labour exploitation?

Examples of created vulnerability that we've found in our work can be broadly grouped into three categories:

  1. Labour abuses that leave workers impoverished or indebted and desperate to survive, such as: non-payment of minimum wage, excessive charges for accommodation, equipment or documentation or withholding passports.
  2. Employment relationships that limit access to justice for abuses, including: long employment chains or precarious work including zero-hours contracts and false self-employment.
  3. Migrant status that places workers at risk of abuse by unscrupulous employers, such as tied visa status, temporary visas and access to the labour market with limited welfare provisions.

And the solutions?

Understanding underlying risk factors helps us to take a solutions oriented approach to labour exploitation.

Three key areas for action to tackle these risks are:

  1. Access to advice, support and information on labour rights provided within communities, from the charity sector, statutory organisations or trade unions;
  2. Oversight and enforcement by labour inspection authorities that are accessible, trusted, empowered to address abuses and adequately resourced to span the whole labour market; and
  3. Firewalls between immigration enforcement and services for the support and protection of workers, such as labour inspection, police, and other support services, to ensure all workers, regardless of status, are not forced into exploitative working conditions.

What’s holding us back?

Without labour market regulation, enforcement and oversight, we cannot ensure decent work for all, and this greatly hampers efforts to prevent exploitation.

Therefore, we also advocate strongly for UK labour inspectorates to be fully resourced to detect abuse across the labour market.

The UK has one of the lowest resourced labour inspection authorities in Europe – just 0.4 inspectors per ten thousand workers, compared with countries like Poland which has twice that at 0.8, and Norway which have 1.3.

UK spending on labour market enforcement is critically low, working out at just £7.70 per worker.

Again, this is meagre compared to our neighbours; Ireland spends double this at £14.40 and Norway three times the amount at the equivalent of £21 per worker. 

What now? FLEX’s action plan

FLEX is hopeful that the new Director of Labour Market Enforcement will help bring together the disparate UK labour inspection authorities to create a joined up, robust labour inspection system.

The measure of his success will depend upon the picture of ‘risk’ he sets out in his first Annual Strategy, due early next year.

And how he sets about addressing these risks to build greater resilience in the labour market to prevent exploitation.

FLEX’s report, which responds to the Director’s strategic consultation, points to examples of best practice from around the world, which the UK can adopt to strengthen enforcement and encourage exploited workers to come forward.

These could include:

  • Memorandums of understanding between labour inspection and immigration enforcement work to ensure workers feel safe to report abuse instead of remaining silent because they fear immigration authorities.
  • Having a single gateway for advice and support on employment issues ensures that workers can access the information they need easily, without having to navigate between several separate and confusing systems.
  • On-the-spot penalties for employers found to be abusing labour rights can act as a strong disincentive, making it more beneficial to comply than to take advantage of vulnerable workers.
  • Making businesses liable for abuses in their supply chains can help to incentivise real oversight of working conditions and transparency throughout the supply chain.

A clear path forward

It is clear that despite the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act, the UK still has a long way to go in developing a comprehensive and effective approach to tackling labour exploitation. 

FLEX is hopeful that the new office of the Director of Labour Market Enforcement provides an important opportunity to better understand and address the risk of exploitation in the UK labour market.

The action plan released today provides a clear path forward in this important task. 

Download Risky business: tackling exploitation in the UK labour market here.


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