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How a new government plan is looking out for low paid workers

7 min read

09 May 2018

Editorial Director

A new report reveals what the government plans to do to help the UK's low paid workers and stem exploitation and modern slavery.

Modern slavery more rampant in the UK than ever before, according to a new report from the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), which finds that 17 sectors are high-risk for employee mistreatment, from stealing wages to flat-out slavery.

Nail bars, car washes, construction, and recycling were among the top offending sectors, but the government’s new anti-exploitation strategy aims to stamp out these injustices across all industries.

The worst offending sectors

Nail salons are the fastest growing businesses across the country, with 12 new salons opening each week. Women in the UK on average have 10 pedicures a year and spend £994 per annum on beauty treatments. Men aren’t too far behind, spending around £779 per year on grooming at salons. On the supply-side, this explains why the industry is valued at £153m.

But how many of these nail salons are licensed? How many nail-happy consumers know who’s primping and polishing their pieds?

In January this year, three members of a Vietnamese gang uncovered in Bath were jailed for a total of nine years for forcing teenage girls to work without pay at nail salons. These children were routinely overworked and kept in squalor. This case, while high profile at the time, has receded into the background as the 24/7 news cycle churned along.  

A separate unregulated industry just as notorious for flouting basic human rights is the unregulated car wash sector. There are around 19,000 of these sites in the UK, and a number of them are involved in modern-day slavery. In some cases, undocumented migrants work 12-hour days for as little as £25.

The current estimate is that there are 40 million slaves worldwide, and the number is only on the upswing in the UK. 

The government’s anti-exploitation strategy

Today, the government’s director of labour market enforcement has called for mandatory holiday pay and payslips for Britain’s lowest paid workers. This is part of a robust anti-exploitation strategy aimed at consumer services.

To tackle labour market exploitation and other unethical business practices, Sir David Metcalf set out 37 separate recommendations ranging from annual leave rights for workers to supply chain compliance.

Fresh HMRC figures have shown the number of underpaid workers that have recouped money from employers doubled in 2017, to 200,000, through the work of its enforcement team.

Commenting on the strategy, Metcalf said it would “toughen up” legal enforcement against unlawful businesses and support compliant employers.

“It’s important the government has the necessary powers to crack down on bad bosses who exploit and steal from their workers – that includes bigger penalties to put employers off breaking the law,” Metcalf said.

The government is expected to respond formally to Metcalf’s recommendations later this year, but its small business minister, Andrew Griffiths, backed its principles.

“We will not accept illegal behaviour from bosses who exploit their workers and cheat the competition which is why we are already cracking down on irresponsible company directors and boosting protections for workers,” Griffiths said.

“We will enforce holiday pay and give new rights for every worker to get a payslip and a list of their rights when they start a job as part of our modern Industrial Strategy plans to build a Britain fit for the future.”

The government’s own Good Work plan was published in February 2018 in response to Matthew Taylor’s review into “bogus self-employment”. Reforms guaranteed rights to sick and holiday pay for workers from the beginning of employment, with other proposals to increase labour market transparency.

Responding to Metcalf’s recommendations, Victoria Atkins, minister for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability, said: “Forced labour and other forms of modern slavery are cruel, barbaric crimes no individual should suffer and we will continue to work with Sir David Metcalf and other partners to stop the abuse of vulnerable workers.

“I am pleased that the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority is using its new powers to tackle worker exploitation across the economy with successful investigations into high risk sectors, such as hand car washes and nail bars.

Modern slavery in figures

The victims

  • Victims of labour exploitation are most commonly Vietnamese, Albanian and British, with British victims increasing by 362%
  • Forced labour accounts for around 30% of all exploitation. The majority of victims are male EU nationals from Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, Romania and Slovakia
  • ‘Debt bondage’ is an increasing tactic used by criminals, where victims are forced to work off debts they have no control over
  • Social media is being used to recruit workers who go on to be exploited, with some people arriving in the UK for work that doesn’t exist
  • Victims tend to live in poor conditions without basic facilities like electricity, heating and water. They are threatened with losing their jobs if they find somewhere else to live
  • Some workers are being further exploited by being charged a daily rate of transport to and from work, with wages taken directly from their bank account

Progress so far

In the 12 months until March 2017, police in England and Wales recorded 2,255 modern slavery offences – far lower than the estimated picture of tens of thousands of offences

The GLAA was given police-style powers in May last year and a remit to tackle exploitation across the entire UK labour market. During its first 12 months in operation, the GLAA has:

  • Arrested 107 people
  • Identified 1,335 abused workers
  • Recovered £94k for workers
  • Identified £150k of withheld wages
  • Identified £231k of withheld holiday pay
  • Seized £97k of cash
  • Launched 181 investigations
  • Inspected 245 businesses
  • Doubled its workforce to more than 120 people

Additional reporting: Simon Caldwell