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.

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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.

 

TUPE or Not to Be?

Over the past twenty years there has been a rapid increase in the amount of work outsourced to agencies and third party subcontractors within the housekeeping departments in major hotels. Almost every hotel in London will have a sizeable proportion of its housekeepers, room attendants and linen porters employed by a third party. In many cases the entire department will have been outsourced.

Most of these outsourced workers will be migrant workers and because they work back of house and are not customer facing many will have little or no spoken English. They will be paid minimum wage, with supervisors on a slightly higher rate. They will invariably be on zero hour contracts with hours provided each week largely dependent on the day to day room occupancy levels in the hotel in which they are based in.

The contracts awarded to the third-party housekeeping contractors are predominantly based on a business model which requires them to invoice the hotel for the number of rooms cleaned per day, rather than the number of staff employed and the number of hours worked. This is a hangover from previous official guidance which suggested the hotels could use the piece work regulations within the Minimum Wage act to pay workers based on the number of rooms cleaned rather than hours worked. This became quite widespread. However, following numerous representations from Unite the Union to the Low Pay Commission the guidance was withdrawn and legally housekeeping staff must now be paid by the hour. However, major hotel chains have retained the business model and usually award contracts to the lowest bid for cost per room.

These circumstances create a perfect storm of exploitation, underpayment and non-payment for housekeeping staff, with constant pressure on them to increase productivity and the small number of service suppliers who attempt to work ethically being constantly undercut.

Sharp Practice

Some the sharp practices we come across regularly include not paying staff for time spent on hotel premises but unable to start cleaning rooms due to delayed check-outs, holding back the first week’s pay on the grounds that these are training days and illegally getting workers to sign an agreement stating this will be withheld if the worker leaves within the first 3 months, making regular and frequent wage errors, not being paid for all hours work which frustrates staff to the point they simply leave without these ever having been resolved.

Short term relationships

The contracts issued to housekeeping service providers usually have no longer than a 2 year lifespan. This means that the contracts are frequently and regularly changing hands. The transfer process rarely, if ever, work in the favour of the housekeeping staff and consistently leaves them out of pocket.

Consultation

The TUPE transfer regulations require both the outgoing and incoming employer to consult both individually and collectively. However, because the majority of workers have English as a second language, are generally unaware of their rights and rarely if ever have any form of organisation or elected representation in place the consultation is effectively little more than a tick box exercise by both employers and something which the hotel itself would only ever engage in if its own directly employed workers were about to be sub contracted.

The consultation usually consists of one employer saying ‘I’ve lost the contract – but don’t worry everything will stay the same once I’m gone’. And the new employer saying ‘I’ve won the contract – but don’t worry nothing will change once I come in’. This never turns out to be the truth.

Collective consultation via reps elected specifically for the purpose does not happen in the main, or where the employer offers this the staff do not understand what they are being asked to engage in. Where collective consultation is not afforded, workers can claim compensation of up to 13 week’s pay in what’s called a protective award. Unite has successfully pursued protective awards in the housekeeping sector. But usually the failure to collective consult goes unnoticed and we are often approached by workers 4 or 5 month into a new contract when it is then too late to act.

Transferring the Liability

Under the TUPE regulations any outstanding liabilities including, ongoing tribunal claims or awards made and unpaid generally, transfer over to the incoming contractor. In the run up to the transfer date it is common for the outgoing contactor to do all they can to ensure as much as possible of the liability for monies owed to workers becomes the liability of the incoming contactor. This will include not rectifying wage errors or unpaid hours, refusing accrued holidays (particularly if the end of the holiday year is approaching around the time of the transfer), deliberately dragging out any settlement negotiations on legal claims, withholding money for training days etc.

Once the liability transfers over to the new contractor the employees are likely to be faced with an argument from their new employer that none of these liabilities were revealed by the old employer as part of the due diligence process. This usually ends up in further delays, with both the old and new contractor essentially banking on workers reaching the point where they just give up on money rightfully owed to them.

Instigating a head count reduction

The incoming contractor will have put in a lower bid than the outgoing contractor. Margins will be tight, so if they can get fewer workers to clean more rooms they will be able to profit from the invoice by room arrangement.

Laying people off or making them redundant could be time consuming and costly. So the employer usually instigates a series of measures clearly designed to encourage people to leave. This is  linked to staff having such low incomes that any small variation in pay can have huge implications in terms of rent, fares, food costs etc.

So, there will be a payroll issue whereby, immediately after the transfer, a large number of staff find themselves on emergency tax codes, temporarily reducing their take home pay. They will find they are sent home regularly under the guise of low hotel occupancy. Pay errors will increase and hours will be ‘mistakenly’ unpaid.

If things don’t look like getting sorted out quickly workers leave in order to take up low paid work elsewhere just to pay the rent. In our experience 50% or more of staff can leave in the first few weeks following a transfer. This doesn’t only allow the new employer to reduce headcount at no cost it also usually mean that any liabilities for money owed by both the new and old employer get written off by the worker as a bad experience.

Ignorance is bliss (for some)

In theory, the TUPE regulations also protect items not specifically written into a workers’ contacts but considered an implied term through custom and practice. Here again housekeeping workers constantly find their rights undermined by the very nature of their employment.

The outgoing contactor may have had a daily productivity requirement of 16 rooms in an 8 hour shift. The incoming employer increases this to 20 rooms. The workers are losing because they are now cleaning more rooms to earn minimum wage. The incoming employer argues that productivity targets are not contractual, if workers put in a grievance this is endlessly dragged out, workers get frustrated and leave, new workers are recruited on the 20 room arrangement.

There may have been an arrangement with the old employer to pay a sum for extra rooms cleaned, but because the invoice for room arrangement it may only appear on the old pay slips as a payment for extra hours, so another unresolvable argument ensues. The new productivity may impact on the ability of workers to take their customary break – so what was once an unpaid half hour meal break and two unpaid 15 minute break may convert as much as an extra hour of unpaid work. Whenever any of this is raised with the hotel themselves they will invariably play ignorant and lay the blame firmly at the door of the contactors without offering any intervention whatsoever.

Generally workers end up out of pocket.

Conclusion

The TUPE transfer regulations are an important piece of worker protection. As they are based on a European Directive they could easily be under threat post Brexit. However, as with any form of legislation workers find it difficult to enforce these rights where they are not underpinned by collective bargaining and union representation in the workplace. There are 5 major hotel chains who are signatories to the United Nations Global Compact and one which is a foundation member of the Ethical Trading Initiative. They are supposed to respect and encourage the rights of their workers to Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining.

All of these hotel chains are engaged in outsourcing their housekeeping departments. They are also supposed to ensure sub contacted service providers afford the same respect and encouragement, allowing workers to engage in collective bargaining.

They do in almost every other major city in the world.

They do not in London and the rest of the UK. They collude and engage in union avoidance tactics to maintain a union free environment within hospitality. This in turns creates the climate where the wholly unethical practices described here can fester and grow and where workers regularly do not receive wages and payments rightfully due to them.