Unpaid Britain: wage default in the British labour market

Employers withholding billions of pounds from workers in Britain

At least 2 million workers in Britain are losing over £3 billion in unpaid holiday pay and wages a year say Middlesex University London researchers in the final Unpaid Britain report* released today (30/11) and funded by Trust for London.

The report, Unpaid Britain: wage default in the British labour market, will be launched at an event in Conway Hall, London from 9am to 1pm on Thursday, 30 November. Key speakers include representatives from Unite, the CBI and Trust for London.

According to the report not paying wages, withholding holiday pay or workers “losing” a couple of hours’ money a week are some of the methods employers are using in a deliberate strategy to boost their profits.

The research team, led by Nick Clark from Middlesex University, analysed employment tribunal judgement data, Labour Force and Family Resource surveys, case studies and interviews to reveal a Britain where millions of workers are systematically losing out on wages while employers rarely face penalties. Furthermore consequences for non-payment are so weak that they do not present a sufficient deterrent to employers with many continuing to reoffend.

Employers use a number of regular and systematic tactics to withhold money from workers, including:

  • Failing to pay accrued holiday pay on workers’ departure.
  • Workers regularly “losing” an hour or two per week in pay.
  • Employers disappearing while owing wages (known as “knocking” in the construction industry).
  • Employers dissolving a company which owes wages in order to start up afresh with a new company (“phoenixing”).
  • Dispute over the interpretation of contracts, for example the payment of travelling time for care workers.
  • Building up arrears in pay keeping workers in place when they might otherwise move on to other jobs, so the practice is effectively labour hoarding.
  • Charging workers for uniforms or other necessary items in order to be able to perform their duties.

Commenting on the report lead author, Nick Clark, said: “The Unpaid Britain project has taken over two years to complete and has revealed an ugly side to employee/employer relations in this country – a nation where the idea of a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work is only an aspiration for so many workers.

“Well-known brands and employers routinely use underhand and unfair methods to withhold payment. One fashion retailer used to make staff repay the company for clothes they were obliged to wear at work. The fact that such practices are widespread can only mean that withholding wages in some form is a deliberate business model for many employers.  Interestingly employers who don’t pay national minimum wages often blame affordability and yet 90% of London employers on the list of national minimum wage offenders, far from resorting to insolvency, remain active.

“This final Unpaid Britain report provides evidence of wage default on an industrial scale. Current means of redress fail our key test in that workers often do not receive what they are owed, while employers can offend repeatedly. Both effective enforcement and stronger unions are needed to give confidence to workers that they do not have to accept this.”

Unpaid wages in the London labour market coincided with the increase of in-work poverty in the Capital. According to the latest London Poverty Profile, 58% of Londoners in poverty are actually in a working household, a proportion which is described as “an all-time high”. For workers in these circumstances, even small reductions in what is paid to them can have catastrophic consequences.

Commenting on Unpaid London, Bharat Mehta CBE, Chief Executive at the Trust for London, said:

“The fact that some employers are withholding wages is totally scandalous because quite simply, it is wrong, and because many of the employees who are missing out are low-paid and already struggling.

“The number of people who are in-work and in poverty is at an all-time high. Millions of people are working hard but still cannot make ends meet. An important part of the solution is making sure that workers are at least getting paid for the work that they do. That should be the minimum anyone in this country can expect. We need stronger action from HMRC and government on this issue.”

Key recommendations from the report include:

  • Making HMRC responsible for paying workers identified NMW arrears, and then collecting them from the employer.
  • Developing systems for informing student workers of their rights, and assisting them in their enforcement.
  • Requiring employers to deposit a financial bond or take out insurance to guarantee workers’ wages.
  • Introducing deterrent penalties for employers’ failure to provide paid holidays or payslips.
  • Stronger sanctions against directors considered to have deliberately failed to pay
  • Empower unions to take up cases on behalf of groups of workers (for example challenging sham self-employed contracts).

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

-Ends-

Contacts:

Nick Clark: n.clark@mdx.ac.uk, 020 8411 4015, 07932 590282

Franca Tranza: Senior Media Officer (Research), f.tranza@mdx.ac.uk, 0208 411 4316 (out-of-hours diverted to mobile).

Navprit Rai: nrai@trustforlondon.org.uk or 07912 177 179

Notes to editors:

*Click here to access the full report and here to read the Executive Summary.

About Middlesex University London

For nearly 140 years Middlesex University (London) and its predecessor institutions have been home to innovators and change-makers. We are a progressive London university that puts our students first and provides expert teaching informed by inspiring research and practice.

We boast a diverse, multinational and multicultural community of 19,400 students and 1,900 staff from 140 different countries based at our modern north London campus. We also have campuses in Dubai, Mauritius and Malta, bringing our total number of students to 37,000. Middlesex University London generates more than £280 million a year for the Barnet economy, supporting some 3,800 local jobs.

We work with employers to make sure that what our students learn is what employers need, and we strive to transform the lives of our students so that they have an excellent experience while they are with us, and a solid foundation for inspiring careers when they leave us.

For more information go to www.mdx.ac.uk.

About Trust for London:

Trust for London is an independent charitable foundation. We aim to tackle poverty and inequality in London and we do this by: funding voluntary and charity groups – each year we make grants totalling around £7.5 million and at any one time we are supporting up to 400 organisations; funding independent research; and providing knowledge and expertise on London’s social issues to policymakers and journalists.

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Unlawful pay deductions aren’t the only problem – there are problematic lawful ones as well

We all get ill from time to time. Sometimes we just need one or two days off work to recover from a cold. Other times things are more serious and we need rather longer periods away from work. What we have in common is a need for financial security during such periods of absence.

One of the most significant employment-related improvements that occurred during the post-war period was the expansion of occupational sick pay schemes that provided staff with income during periods of sickness absence. Indeed, statistics suggest that by the end of the 1980s around 90% of employers offered at least some of their staff access to sick pay. Since then, however, the evidence suggests that this percentage has declined significantly.  The latest available figures indicate that less than half of employers (and a much small proportion of private sector ones) now operate such schemes. Or to put it another way, indicate that most employers (perfectly lawfully) deduct a significant proportion of pay from sick, absent staff.

Against this backcloth, available figures further suggest that around 30% of employees, as well as those many, many workers working casually and in various forms of false self-employment, do not have access to sick pay. These are potentially entitled instead to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). This is only the case though if they are paid at least the National Insurance threshold of £113 a week. Furthermore, if this threshold is passed, employees only receive £89.35 a week from the fourth day of absence up to a maximum of 28 weeks. For somebody who normally work 35 hours on the adult National Minimum Wage, this means that they will only have around a third of their normal income replaced while on SSP. It also means that non-employees have no entitlement and hence can effectively lose all their pay.

The recent Taylor review of modern working practices, in its (surely) ironically entitled report Good Work, recommended that the Government reform SSP to make it payable to all ‘workers’, regardless of their income from their first day of absence. Amazingly, however, this expansion of coverage was recommended alongside the further proposal that the entitlement to receive it for up to six months be ‘accrued on length of service’.  Equally amazingly, and notwithstanding the review’s claimed focus on providing fair and decent work for all, nothing was said about the loss of pay likely to be experienced by many of those receiving SSP. Nor was anything said about the current gross disparities that exist in current sick pay arrangements which mean that some employees receive no pay when absent, while others receive six months on full pay and a further six months on half-pay. Silences which suggests that very strange notions of fairness and decency were being applied.

Arrangements to provide income to sick workers vary widely across developed economies. In some countries, employers are responsible for its provision. In others, payments form part of the social security system. In yet others, a combination of these two approaches are in place. What is clear, however, is that the arrangements in the UK are among the least generous in the developed world. For example, in one study only New Zealand and the United States were found to possess less generous ones[i].

It is then clearly far from impossible for a modern advanced economy to treat ill, absent workers with more decency and respect than is the case in the UK. Obviously, there is much scope for debate about how the present situation in the country could be improved. A valuable starting point though would be to accord greater recognition to its grossly unfair and unsatisfactory nature. After all, it is surely simply wrong that over half of employers can lawfully deduct pay from staff on the grounds that they are unable to attend work due to illness

 

[i] Heymann, J., Hye, R., Schmitt, J and Earle, A. 2010. ‘Ensuring a healthy and productive workforce: comparing the generosity of paid sick day and sick leave policies in 22 countries’, International Journal of Health Services, 40(1), 1-22

 

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.

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.

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.

Deregulation meets criminalisation: migrant women workers in the low-paid economy

There is endemic exploitation of low paid migrant women workers in some sectors of the economy. According to our experience at the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS) this could vary from cases such as Maria who works in hospitality and is supposedly  “paid the national minimum wage per hour” but in reality is paid by the number of rooms she cleans. It being virtually impossible for an average person to clean her target number of rooms in one hour, in reality Maria gets paid well below the national minimum wage.

Amparo sometimes gets paid for extra hours cleaning offices in a posh building in the City but sometimes she doesn’t. However, it took her a long time to work this out.  Beatriz gets paid the London Living Wage in one of her cleaning contracts with an agency, while at the same time being forced to work for payment below the National Minimum Wage on another of her contracts with the same agency. If she refuses, she will lose both contracts.

Laura never gets paid for extra hours and Antonia forces herself to go to work even when she is very ill to ensure that she is paid and not to lose the hours that have been allocated to her.

There are many common experiences for Maria, Amparo, Beatriz, Laura and Antonia and many migrant women workers like them. They all work in low skilled, low paid jobs in cleaning and hospitality. They work though outsourced agencies doing several shifts per week for different contracts and working unsocial hours (from 4 am to 8 am and from 6 pm to midnight) finishing when mainstream workers start and starting when they go home. Some of them don’t know who their employer is (as there is a chain of contractors and sub contractors) and only know their immediate line manager who also speaks Spanish.  Another common trend is that they all live in “in work” poverty and struggle to make ends meet; and they feel they can’t complain because they simply can’t afford to lose their jobs and not be able to feed their children. Colleagues who have complained in the past have been dismissed or simply have not had additional hours of work allocated to them.

Maria, Amparo, Beatriz, Laura and Antonia are migrant women workers from Latin America which according to Towards Visibility is the second fastest growing non-EU migrant group in the UK.  Despite having education (often university degrees), they are working in exploitative, unregulated sectors and in precarious employment. According to the research, half of newly arrived Latin Americans work in contract cleaning, 45% experience labour exploitation and 1 in 5 are not paid for work done. They don’t speak English and have few opportunities to learn it, spending their time between their shift work and caring responsibilities. Day to day struggles, for them, are about survival.

The women at LAWRS reading about their labour rights

The women at LAWRS reading about their labour rights

At LAWRS we see cases like this on an ongoing basis. Some of them involving labour exploitation and others amounting to trafficking for labour exploitation. As our invisible women video portrays many women are placed in vulnerable situations and have few avenues for survival.

The industries where many low paid migrant women work are unregulated with employers able to exploit workers without much redress. Recent policy and legal changes have made things more complicated with the introduction of Employment Tribunal (ET) fees (that low paid migrant workers are completely unable to afford) and with the criminalisation of what the Government calls “illegal work”. In the past, employers were punished, but with an official Government “hostile policy on migration’ and the new Immigration Act 2016, workers with insecure migration status could face a prison sentence and the seizing of wages for working without appropriate documentation.

These new measures have opened new avenues for unscrupulous employers who are able to exploit migrant women workers with impunity.

We have seen cases of sexual abuse at work and other crimes that have gone unreported due to the absence of a “firewall” in between safe reporting and immigration control. Unfortunately immigration control continues to be well above survivor’s rights even in extreme cases of trafficking for sexual or labour exploitation.

Additionally for those workers that have the right to work in the UK, accessing justice is  burdensome and cumbersome. They struggle with language barriers, little knowledge about their rights and difficulties in navigating the system. There are also structural obstacles such as little regulation on outsourcing, prohibitive ET fees and the use of ACAS as a first port of call for workers (for most migrant workers in cleaning navigating the ACAS helpline is already a barrier for accessing justice).

What can be done about this? There is some hope in the extension of the remit of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) to all labour market sectors. However appropriate funding needs to be allocated to the GLAA (that will have increased powers with no additional funding) to be able to do their job properly. It is also essential to regulate outsourcing and for all contractors to have checks and balances in their cleaning and hospitality contracts. Labour exploitation could be present in your own building without you being aware of it.  ET fees also need to be abolished.

There is also a need for a strict firewall between immigration control and safe reporting of exploitation and crime. Information regarding migrant workers reporting exploitation should not be passed to the Home Office for immigration control purposes. Otherwise, survivors will continue choosing not to report. LAWRS will be launching a campaign called Step up! for Migrant Women to ensure strict firewalls for safe reporting and access to services for migrant women survivors of violence and crime.

It is also essential to document the extent and nature of the problem of unpaid wages and exploitation which is what Unpaid Britain is attempting to do.

For migrant women workers and the organisations supporting them, it is important to encourage unionisation and organising, and to provide proper advice in a language that the workers can understand. It is also essential to document the extent and nature of the problem of unpaid wages which is what Unpaid Britain is attempting to do. If we are serious about tackling non-payment and labour abuse, we need to ensure that migrant workers are not left behind and are able to assert their rights.