The weighted scales of economic justice: Unpaid Britain interim report

Unpaid Britain – interim report reveals that workers are denied £1.2 billion of wages and £1.5 billion of holiday pay each year

Researchers from Middlesex University London, funded by Trust for London, describe today’s (15/6) interim report, results about unpaid workers in Britain as the “tip of the iceberg”.

The report “The Weighted Scales of Economic Justice”* from the Unpaid Britain project based at Middlesex University estimates that:

  • £1.2 billion of wages are unpaid each year
  • £1.5 billion of holiday pay are unpaid every year
  • one in 12 workers does not receive a payslip (a breach of employment rights)
  • one in 20 workers receive no paid holidays (a breach of employment rights)
  • on 23,000** occasions in a year the impact of unpaid or delayed wages is so severe it leads to workers having no food
  • sectors most likely to not pay wages include sports activities, amusement and recreation, food and beverage services, employment activities – in London arts and entertainment as well as construction are also high offenders.

Lead author, Nick Clark from Middlesex University London said: “It has not been easy to find accurate data on the true scale of failure to pay wages in this country and I fear that this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of painting a realistic picture of unpaid Britain. One of the problems is that there is no official data on non-payment. Not paying wages is a civil rather than a criminal offence which means there are no crime statistics.

“Our interim findings demonstrate that there is a desperate need for improved workers’ protection and better guidance on their rights and how these can be enforced. With an uncertain Brexit around the corner there has never been a more important time to safeguard, protect and enhance workers’ rights.”

The researchers found employers can withhold wages with impunity and there is a widespread culture of repeat offenders. Moreover they found that directors of half of the companies that were dissolved and who had defaulted on wages returned as directors of other companies in due course.

Types of unpaid wages include failure to provide holiday pay, unpaid hours of work and unauthorised deductions. Other types include not paying the last wage (or outstanding holiday pay) or ceasing to pay when insolvency was likely.

The researchers also looked specifically at London. The arts, entertainment and construction are big employers in London and they featured prominently in London Employment Tribunal cases involving unpaid wages. The report shows that London displays both the lowest and highest proportions reporting no paid holidays: 2.5% in Central London, 8.7% in Outer London.

Middlesex University researchers used the following sources to gather data on this subject: Labour Force and Family Resources surveys, lists of National Minimum Wage offenders, Insolvency Service data (secured through Freedom of Information requests) and Employment Tribunal judgements. In addition the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, Barnet Citizens Advice Bureau, Lambeth Law Centre and the Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals all permitted access to survey or casework data. A series of case studies (mostly from London) were also used to illustrate the stories behind non-paid wages.

The Unpaid Britain project was established at Middlesex University Business School in September 2015 and is co-funded by the Trust for London. The final report is due in November 2017.

Advertisements

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.

 

The disappearing payslip

I recently took part in an HMRC “webinar” on the National Minimum Wage, offering help and support to union reps wishing to assist members enforce their rights. During the course of this, participants were told of the importance of checking payslips to see if workers had been properly paid.

This confirms views expressed by some of the advisors interviewed in the early stages of Unpaid Britain, and my own experience assisting workers in the past. The payslip is an important piece of evidence in identifying errors, unpaid wages and unlawful deductions, and its absence is usually a sign that there is something seriously wrong with the employment relationship.

The general right to “written pay advice” dates back to the 1960 Payment of Wages Act, and the requirements have changed little since. Then, gross pay, net pay and any deductions had to be shown, and this remains the case now under Section 8 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. However there is no requirement in law to show how the gross figure has been calculated – by showing the number of hours worked and the hourly rate of pay for example. Unions have argued that this can leave workers with insufficient information to assess whether they have been paid enough. In the latest Low Pay Commission (LPC) report (para 66), the LPC have taken note of these points and recommended (not for the first time) that the government consider requiring that payslips of hourly-paid workers should include the number of hours for which they are being paid.

But the absence of details on a payslip is not the only problem. The absence of a payslip at all seems to be a growing problem – and in London the effect is particularly marked (see chart)[1]. Our analysis of data from the official Family Resource Survey, shows that one in four employees in London does not receive a physical payslip, 15% because it is now said to be provided in electronic form, and over 10% because workers report that their employer does not provide one at all.employees-with-no-payslips-correct-real

Unlawful

There are two troubling aspects to this. Firstly the failure to provide a payslip is unlawful, and could (if taken to an Employment Tribunal) result in the award of a penalty. This is explained by Unpaid Britain Advisory Group member Jo Seery of Thompsons Solicitors:

“Where a tribunal finds that un-notified deductions have been made in the 13 week period immediately preceding the… claim being lodged, [they] may order the employer to pay a sum not exceeding the aggregate of the un-notified deductions … So a tribunal could order the sum of tax and NI contributions be paid by the employer where these have been deducted but not notified to the employee.” 

As Jo also points out, for those workers whose earnings are below National Insurance or tax thresholds, there is no penalty for a failure to provide. And in my experience, employers will often “discover” the missing payslips and provide them before any ET hearing, thus avoiding any penalty. Where the employer has disappeared, or is insolvent, or resists recovery attempts, the penalty is neither here nor there because even if it is awarded, it will not be paid.

Without payslips, employers may deny that those claiming owed wages were ever employed by them, or were employed by other associated companies. Workers who suspect that NI or tax deductions were not paid to HMRC have little to support them when they attempt to ensure that their contributions record is correct. This may have serious consequences for pension and benefit entitlements, and for migrants seeking to establish residency rights (for which the paperwork requirements are ridiculously stringent).

Workers suspecting contributions are not being paid over by their employer can complain to the tax authorities (HMRC) via their “tax evasion hotline”, or online, or by post although “HMRC won’t reply to confirm they’ve received your letter”[2].  Workers using this method may never find out what steps have been taken to rectify matters, so as an enforcement method, this leaves something to be desired.

Employers are also required by law to maintain records to demonstrate that they are paying at least the National Minimum Wage (NMW), and although workers may have the right to inspect these, so too do NMW inspectors. Failure to maintain such records is a criminal offence, but there do not appear to have been any prosecutions for this.

Digital

The shift to electronic payslips presents separate problems. Most employment lawyers seem to agree that this probably fulfils the legal requirement, as long as the opportunity is afforded to workers to access a computer to see their payslips. However, in the real world of aggressive management, many workers will be reluctant to assert this right, even if it is notionally available. Secondly, while it is true that many workers now have smart phones or tablets and can easily access their employers’ system, or open the attachment to an e-mail, or the SMS message (this is apparently used by some employers), not all will be able to do so. And even if they do, does the system permit the worker to save a copy, so that if they leave the employer, they have a record of deductions?

Respondents in Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals surveys are asked if e-distribution is under consideration by those not already using it, and in the latest survey available (2103/14), 23 out of 62 said it was. From this admittedly rather small sample, it seems likely that there is a continuing trend towards the use of digital payslips, with serious implications for workers who have problems with access to technology, and for the use of payslips as evidence.

Enforcement

There is clearly a case for making the required format of payslips more detailed – providing hours worked, and holidays outstanding, for example – and a case for unions to keep an eye on the design and administration of pay systems, ensuring that workers are aware of the need to check and retain payslips (and that they can easily do so).

But union coverage is partial, particularly in the private sector, so penalties for non-provision need to be dissuasive, and accessible. This means no Employment Tribunal fees! Providing reliable routes for workers to complain of non-provision of payslips, and a system of inspection of payslips could both help to identify other abuses of workers’ rights and be of benefit to the exchequer.

[1] Of the UK regions, Wales is worst with 14.3% reporting no pay slip and a further 12.7% receiving an electronic version. London showed the second highest proportion. Nationally, 8.6% of workers report receiving no payslip, and 11.6% an electronic one (2014/15 figures).

[2]https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/hm-revenue-customs/contact/reporting-tax-evasion, accessed 23 June 2016