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Kate Wareing

Kate Wareing is Director of UK Poverty at Oxfam.

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What Are Rights Without Enforcement?

27 July 2011 | by Kate Wareing

Recently the Institute for Human Rights and Business, Anti-Slavery International and the Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility jointly held an event at Westminster to highlight the lessons learnt from the Gangmasters Licensing Authority – the body that enforces regulations relating to agency supplied staff in the UK agricultural and food processing sectors. Kate Wareing, Director of UK Poverty at Oxfam, reflects on what steps can be taken to prevent ongoing exploitation of workers in other sectors of the UK economy.

Workplace exploitation and abuses occur in several sectors of the UK economy – particularly in the social care, hospitality and construction sectors.

Oxfam's research shows that workplace exploitation and abuses occur in several sectors of the UK economy – particularly in the social care, hospitality and construction sectors.

For most of us, the idea of being deliberately misled over the content of our contracts, having our wages spuriously docked, or even having our wages withheld without reason, is something that we don’t expect to happen. Yet such workplace exploitation occurs in the UK and it keeps those who are most vulnerable trapped in poverty and at the mercy of their employers.

The types of abuses described above were once an all too common feature of the agricultural, food-packing and shellfish gathering industries. These abuses didn’t go unrecognised and the Temporary Labour Working Group, convened by the Ethical Trading Initiative, set the train in motion towards better enforcement of labour rights.

Whilst the tragedy at Morecambe Bay was arguably the tipping point, work by the unions, companies and the NGO sector, spearheaded by Jim Sheridan MP’s Private Members’ Bill, resulted in better labour rights enforcement through the creation of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA). Six years since its creation and labour rights standards have dramatically improved across the sectors within the GLA’s remit.

But the GLA is restricted to enforcing standards of labour suppliers (gangmasters) in only five sectors of the economy. Those who are supplying labour beyond the GLA’s remit are subject to the employment agencies’ legislation and regulations, enforced by the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate (EAS). As Oxfam’s research has shown, the same abuses that were once common in sectors now regulated by the GLA are found in other sectors of the economy – particularly in the social care, hospitality and construction sectors.

In social care, Oxfam’s research, produced with our partners Kalayaan, found care workers forced to work up to 100 hours per week, expected to be constantly on call, with spurious deductions taken from pay for petrol and other expenses, and non-payment of holiday and sick pay – all whilst workers are being paid no more than the minimum wage. Evidence from the hospitality sector has shown some workers facing underpayment of wages, excessive deductions for cleaning equipment, and the practices of false self-employment and paying piece-rates per room cleaned resulting in a wage below the National Minimum Wage.

Indeed research into the hospitality sector in London found 17.5 per cent of workers paid below the NMW. In the construction sector, the use of false self-employment is particularly prevalent and it has been estimated that 200,000 construction workers have unclear employment status. False-self-employment in the construction sector alone is estimated to lead to an annual shortfall of £2.5 billion a year in NI contributions.

Oxfam’s research, in common with others who have studied this sector recently, also found severe and systematic violations of health and safety procedures were common, with repeated instances of threats to sack workers if they raised concerns.

The Coalition Government’s position is clear with Minister for Employment Relations, Ed Davey, stating that there are no plans to extend the remit of the GLA. This may come as a surprise given Ed Davey’s support for extension of GLA’s remit in opposition. Nonetheless, what is clear from both independent research and from Government reports is that enforcement in sectors currently overseen by EAS is poor and abuses in the hospitality, social care and construction sectors persist.

The launch of the Government’s review of the enforcement arrangements of employment rights provides an opportunity to change this.

The GLA clearly provides a blueprint for effective employment rights enforcement. The response to better enforcement of rights is often that it is a burden on businesses, so it is pertinent to note that 79% of licensed gangmasters are in favour of licensing, largely for the simple reason that it has created a level playing field. If anything, the GLA has reduced the burden on supermarkets, many of whom are heavily involved in the Temporary Labour Working Group – that see the GLA’s licensing regime as reducing the need to check that their suppliers are above-board. Yet, effective protection of workers’ rights and a level playing field remains the privilege of sectors regulated by the GLA.

It is Oxfam’s view, along with IHRB, ECCR, Anti-Slavery, The Ethical Trading Initiative and the Association of Labour Providers (ALP), that the GLA’s working practices – the use of intelligence-led enforcement and intervention that has significantly reduced abuses in sectors regulated by the GLA – must be applied to other sectors of the economy, in particular social care, hospitality and construction. The GLA showed something can be done no matter how invisible the exploitation may seem. Better enforcement doesn’t mean more rights given to the workers. As Mark Boleat, Chairman of the ALP, rightly pointed out at IHRB’s event, applying the GLA’s working practices would simply mean enforcing the existing law – rights in practice, not merely rights on paper.

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