Minimum wage offenders in London: distorted perceptions of delinquency

In October 2013, a new “name and shame” regime was introduced for employers who had been identified as breaching National Minimum Wage (NMW) regulations. Since then, the government’s business ministry (now known as BEIS – pronounced as “baize”), has been publishing periodic lists of offenders, the latest of which came out earlier this month.

Unpaid Britain has taken a closer look at the details of the 104 London-based employers so far identified. According to our analysis, these London employers had deprived 16,201 workers of a total of £2,274,000 in minimum wages (an average of about £140 per worker). We have looked at what these cases can reveal about breaches of employment contracts, partly through categorising them by industrial sector, and partly by checking for indicators of company survival.

For the media, who love a human interest story, tales of extreme exploitation of “vulnerable” workers by evil individual employers are bread and butter. To some extent, this is echoed in regulators’ approach, with BEIS listing large numbers of small employers and apparently targeting sectors known to host large numbers of SMEs. However, the scale of an offence can be measured through several different prisms. If we take the number of offending employers from each sector, we will have one idea of which is the most abusive. Measuring the number of workers affected will tell us something else. Finally, the sums of money involved may be the most significant, from both the workers’ and employers’ points of view, and will tell us still something else.

This is where the economies of scale come in. Let us assume for a minute that an employer wants to boost their profits by depressing wages (not too much of a stretch of the imagination), and that for at least some workers this may involve breaches of employment regulation. For these breaches to be sustainable and substantial, they will ideally represent small sums at the individual worker level, but be widespread and continuous. They should also have a low chance of detection and (in the event of discovery) be plausibly deniable as a deliberate strategy.

Taking the evidence presented in the London list of shame, we can test this by presenting the sectoral data in a variety of ways, firstly by counting the guilty employers (see table 1).

Table 1 By number of employers

Other personal services 17
Food & beverage services 15
Retail 11
Education 10
Employment activities 5

Other personal services, which tops this league, contains the hairdressers and nail bars traditionally presented as sites of exploitation, and recently suggested by the CEO of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority as priority areas for the GLA’s new remit (when it takes on an extra A and becomes the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority). However, these are small workplaces, so those 17 employers were found to have underpaid only 25 workers. The largest numbers of underpaid workers were found in a largely different group of sectors, led by the retail industry. Not surprisingly, these sectors also showed the largest total sums identified as outstanding (see tables 2 and 3).

Table 2 By number of workers affected

Retail 13307
Security & investigations 2519
Human health 177
Food & beverage services 82
Other personal services 25

Table 3 By total sum owed

Security & investigations £1,742,655.56
Retail £244,302.49
Food & beverage services £160,199.64
Education £24,229.59
Other personal services £22,308.05

 A handful of cases dominate these last two tables: retailers Debenhams (thought to have underpaid workers by one day per year) and Monsoon (who had required staff to repay the company for clothes they were obliged to wear at work); TSS (Total Security Services) (who claimed to have made “an inadvertent mistake” with a salary sacrifice scheme); and twice-featured San Lorenzo restaurant (who apparently were struggling with family crises). The sectors showing the highest average sum per worker are again different, led by residential care and telecoms, but these represent only two cases per sector, each involving one worker. Food and beverage services features in all the tables, confirming its place in the Index of Employer Delinquency first proposed on this blog. However in this analysis of NMW offences, the sector owes its place there to the double appearance of the upmarket San Lorenzo restaurant, found to have underpaid 30 workers in August 2016, and 29 again in February 2017. The retail sector, although showing the second highest total sum outstanding, showed only an average “take” per worker of only £18.36.

Table 4 By average sum unpaid per worker

Residential care £3170.09
Telecommunications £3004.67
Travel agency, tour operators £2732.09
Other wholesale £2204.97
Food & beverage services £1953.65

These figures suggest that the employer most wanting to operate a sustainable system would do well to take little and often, since that is where the big money can be found. The exception to this seems to have been the case of TSS (Total Security Systems) Ltd of east London, who had both a large number of workers affected, and a relatively high sum per head (£691.80).

TSS claimed that a salary sacrifice scheme was the source of the underpayment, and was aimed to increase workers’ take home pay, but was withdrawn in 2014. Also in 2014, the highest paid director of the company received a salary of £2.6m, suggesting that other means of boosting workers’ pay may have been available. The 2014 accounts also tell us that at the end of October that year, provision was made in the company’s accounts of £1,736,000 for “payroll liabilities”. The sum owed to workers according to the NMW offenders list issued by the government in February 2016 was £1,743,000. I wonder, as they say in Private Eye, if these sums are by any chance related?

One other factor Unpaid Britain has been monitoring is the health of companies who have been pointed out by BEIS. Our work on Employment Tribunal (ET) judgements suggests that many of the companies who are judged to owe their workers wages, become insolvent or are dissolved, possibly to avoid payment. In our sample of London ET cases including “deductions from wages” and lodged in 2012 and 2014, only 36% of private sector employers remained active at the end of 2016.  Research conducted by Ipsos Mori and Community Links in 2012 for the Low Pay Commission found that NMW offending employers were likely to cite affordability as one of the drivers of their failure to pay. Were this to be the case, one might expect a high level of company dissolution amongst employers on the list of NMW offenders. In fact we find that 92% are still active. At this stage, this comparison is somewhat crude, as it does not take account of time lags or other factors, but it suggests that reports of the impending demise of those forced to pay the NMW may have been premature.

The data does not prove the existence of the employer strategy posited earlier in this blog, but it most certainly does not disprove it, and provides some support for it. Later in the year, Unpaid Britain will be drawing together the many strands of our research to describe the factors underlying the non-payment of wages, but in the meantime, as always, we are happy to hear of examples (confidentiality respected).

A note of caution: These cases do not include unpaid holiday pay, or wages owed in excess of the NMW, so the sums owed could be considerably larger than reported by BEIS. Some employers may be identified as London-based but have underpaid employees located across the country, similarly others with workers in London may be based elsewhere. We have sought to locate employers and identify their industrial sector from information provided on BEIS lists, supported by Companies House data and internet searches, but in some cases the workers may have been carrying out work in sectors other than the one identified as their employer’s main business. Finally, the sample of only 104 employers is unlikely to be a representative sample of NMW offenders.

 

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