Protecting vulnerable workers from exploitation

Here’s a question for you … what does someone who has been illegally trafficked into the UK, is then forced to live in squalor and is paid a pittance for working several hours every day, have in common with a worker who is not receiving holiday pay?

The answer is they are both being exploited for their labour.

Of course, the two scenarios are completely different. The first is clearly a victim of modern slavery, a repugnant practice which is sadly increasing not just here in the UK but across the world, as criminals trade people as a commodity.

The second worker may believe he or she is being treated fairly, they may enjoy their job and it could come with all the rights and benefits you are entitled to working in the UK.

But if they are not being paid what is rightfully theirs, whether that is holiday money or for services rendered, then they are a victim of labour exploitation.

At the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), we are the agency charged with protecting vulnerable workers from labour exploitation across the entire UK labour market.

Modern slavery is the extreme form of exploiting workers but we are determined to root out labour abuse across the whole spectrum.

It took the deaths of 23 cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004 to focus the nation fully on the extreme costs of severe worker exploitation. The tragedy on that freezing February night brought about new legislation that resulted in the creation of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.

For more than  decade the GLA sought to prevent the exploitation of vulnerable workers but our powers were limited and our remit restricted to the fresh produce sector – agriculture, horticulture, shellfish gathering and all associated processing and packaging.

Now, in direct response to the challenges and threat posed by modern slavery, we have been given sweeping new powers and a broadened remit to investigate all forms of labour exploitation.

We have specialist officers with police-style powers of arrest to investigate forced labour and human trafficking. In addition to what we examine to ensure compliance with Licensing Standards, we will also be working with partners to look into Labour Market Enforcement to include offences such as failure to pay National Minimum Wage (NMW) and breaches of the Employment Agency Act.

We know these offences are commonplace with some labour providers and it is they who we are targeting as we work with partners to eradicate illegal practices.

Modern slavery is abhorrent; it is described by the Prime Minister as ‘the greatest human rights issue of our time.’

But it is happening right now in businesses up and down the country.

Thousands of people being forced to work for little or no pay, often in appalling conditions and with the threat of violence hanging over them if they step out of line.

Much of it is controlled by organised crime gangs who have links to drug smuggling, guns and violence. They know full well the enormous profits that can be made from using people as a commodity.

It’s lucrative and the risks are low.

It is estimated that there are between 10,000-13,000 slaves in the UK but there may be many more. Slavery and labour exploitation has infiltrated legitimate supply chains from retail, construction, care homes and the hotel and hospitality industry.

Yet, as I said earlier, modern slavery is the extreme end of labour exploitation. At the other end of the scale the GLAA has uncovered a number of ploys used to exploit workers.

One is around the innocuous, yet important practice of clocking in and out. We have found employers who round down the time their employees clock in by a few minutes here and there.

For example, if you clocked in at 9.03am, the business may round this down to 9.15am. Twelve minutes doesn’t sound a lot does it? But with hundreds of workers this soon adds up. One labour provider had to give us a breakdown over a three month period for what this cost and it amounted to more than £10,000 which workers had not been paid that they were due.

Some labour providers blatantly take hours off a time sheet. The worker may not notice or fail to query it because it might only happen occasionally. But again, if this is happening to several people then the amount of money can be substantial.

It also has a knock on effect for holiday pay because that is calculated by looking at the hours someone has worked. Foreign workers are particularly vulnerable to this practice and are unlikely to protest or raise it.

Holiday pay is another issue we see used to exploit workers. Labour providers withhold this money by not paying out when they issue P45s or only reluctantly pay it if the employee requests it.

But many don’t do so, either because they don’t realise they are entitled to holiday pay, they may have moved on to work somewhere else or they simply reluctant to ask.

The GLAA knows of businesses who have a holiday pot where they put money in for each worker’s holiday pay but by the end of the year, when those workers have left or haven’t asked for any leave, the business simply pockets the money.

If you are an employee or worker, you are entitled to paid holiday but must ask for it. But many don’t because they fear losing their job. Make sure you know your rights, this is critical in ensuring you are not exploited

Also, get into the habit of regularly checking your payslips carefully and keep them to show what hours you have been paid for. Keep your own log as this provides evidence should it be needed.

Each of us deserves to be treated fairly at work and that means being paid a fair’s day wage for a fair’s day work.

What would you do if later today you were to discover Health and Safety rules were being flouted on a regular basis inside your company?

Or what if you became aware of a culture of bullying and harassment towards colleagues at your organisation?

What would your response be if you witnessed someone being discriminated against because of their ethnicity, religion or gender?

You’d act.

And you’d do so, not simply because all three of those things are illegal and the law demands it, but because they are morally reprehensible and you have a duty not to look the other way.

So, why do so many people (and organisations) turn a blind eye to modern slavery and labour exploitation?

The GLAA suspects it’s a combination of things; maybe they’re in denial about it happening on their doorstep, are afraid to confront it for fear of their business being caught up in an investigation or, more damningly, they are aware but choose to say nothing because it’s commercially convenient.

Whatever the reason, the simple fact is they are all excuses; and they are excuses that won’t wash in the eyes of the law any longer.

We are confident the GLAA will have a major impact on disrupting and dismantling modern slavery networks that have established themselves within the UK and tackling poor and illegal practices that see thousands of workers exploited by employers every year.

In time, the Modern Slavery Act will become as familiar, and important, to employers as both the Health and Safety at Work Act and the Equality Act in ensuring their businesses fully comply with the law and the welfare of employees is looked after.

But enforcement alone won’t defeat the slavers and traffickers.

The only way we will rid ourselves of this repugnant practice is for it to become socially and morally unacceptable.

And that’s where you come in.

Whether you’re simply a worker in a factory or a labour provider, you have a moral and ethical responsibility to prevent people from being forced to work or from being exploited.

Unsure what to look for? We have produced specific guidance that can help you spot the signs of labour exploitation. Click here to read it.

You can also learn more about the GLAA by visiting our website www.gla.gov.uk or call us free and confidentially on 0800 432 0804 to report any suspicions or knowledge about labour exploitation.