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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Delinquent Employers and in-work benefits: Intended and Unintended Consequences

Many low paid and part-time workers are dependent on welfare benefits to bring their income to a level which meets their essential expenditure. This unfortunate fact goes against the prevailing narrative of work-shy, undeserving poor prevalent in the media and used by government to justify deep cuts to the welfare state. While it might be argued that the state ought not to top up low wages through in-work benefits and through tax credits in particular, it is unavoidable while wage stagnation continues and living costs inexorably rise, and no amount of pontificating about minimum wage levels will solve this problem.

Being in receipt of in-work benefits requires a great deal of application from the claimant, and the worker faces a great deal of pressure to immediately report any changes to their rate of pay and to provide supporting evidence of that. And this is where an obstructive, delinquent or simply disorganised employer can have a seriously deleterious effect on the lives of their workers.

This post describes some of the ways in which employers’ actions, whether motivated by a desire to maximise profit, avoid scrutiny from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) or to circumvent National Minimum Wage legislation, can result in a knock-on effect which reduces or stops the worker’s benefit income and puts their quality of life, home and health at risk.

Not supplying payslips

The right to a payslip is enshrined in the Employment Rights Act 1996 but is flouted by many delinquent employers. All in-work benefits require the claimant to provide evidence of their income, and if they cannot, their benefits may be stopped and they may be asked to pay back any benefit previously received. Additionally, while any investigation is being carried out, the claimant’s benefits will be suspended, causing additional hardship and often pushing people into rent arrears and other debts. For example, at Citizens Advice Barnet we recently advised a client who had worked part-time for two employers. One had offered her extra hours, so she accepted and gave up her other job. She reported the change of circumstances to the benefits authorities, as she was obliged to do, but when they requested evidence in the form of payslips, her employer refused to provide them, saying that he had never given anyone payslips and did not intend to start now. Her benefits were suspended and she fell into financial hardship – and the employer continued to refuse to provide evidence of the hours she was working. Latterly he produced hand-written payslips covering a short period, which he sat down and wrote in from of the client, each with a different pen. These contained inaccurate information so were useless as evidence of anything. The employee had to appeal the benefits decisions – and the benefits were ultimately reinstated – but her stress and hardship caused by the employer shirking his statutory duty were damaging and completely unnecessary.

Late payment of wages

Late payment, while it causes cashflow problems, does not usually affect in-work benefits. However, where it can cause real problems is when a person loses their job and makes a claim for Universal Credit (UC). UC is gradually being introduced across England and Wales as a replacement for almost all other benefits – paid as a single monthly payment. The problem that late payment causes arises in quite specific circumstances. If someone claims UC, they are subject to a 4-week ‘assessment period’ during which their income for that period is used to calculate their entitlement. If they leave work having received their final pay and them claim UC, there should be no problem – but when the final payment is wrong, as it often is, and the employer pays the difference later (which will usually include accrued holiday pay, notice pay etc), then that will be counted as income for the assessment period (even though it should have already been received) and the claimant will have to wait a further 4 weeks before they can receive any UC. This illustrates well the complexity of the benefits system and the unintended consequences late payment can have. In effect, this will mean an additional 4 weeks where the claimant is unable to pay their rent or feed their family.

Zero Hours contracts

For a person on a zero hours contract, reconciling that with an ongoing claim for in-work benefits creates enormous complexity and an administrative headache for the worker. In order to avoid potential overpayment of benefit and the resulting allegations of fraud, the employee has to report any change in earning to the benefits authority immediately. However, where there is a zero-hours contract, in some weeks the worker may have 40 hours of work, in other weeks 2 or 3. This means that their benefits payments will fluctuate along with their wages, but the benefits payments – particularly housing benefit which is paid in arrears – lag behind and make budgeting extremely difficult. Most people who are in low paid work will receive some housing benefit to enable them to top up their income to pay their rent, and where the housing benefit is paid directly to the landlord (as it often is), the claimant simply does not know how much to pay themselves to make up the difference. This all contributes to a feeling of helplessness and has the potential to lead to eviction if the landlord gets fed up with receiving fluctuating payments.

Deliberately avoiding liability for statutory payments

This happens most often in cases of female workers on zero hours contracts or contracts which state a low number of hours but where custom and practice means that the worker is actually working far in excess of the contractual position. Where these workers become pregnant, the employer has a duty to pay Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP). However, despite being able to reclaim this from the state, many employers, either because of a perceived administrative burden or from an ideological opposition to pregnant workers, will seek to avoid liability. The method is simple – gradually reduce the number of hours so that by the time the calculation for SMP is made, the earnings are below the qualifying level of £112 per week. This does take some application from the employer, as the calculation averages the gross pay for the 8 weeks before the 15th week before the date the baby is expected, so they really do need to think ahead in order to circumvent their employee’s rights.

These are only a few examples, but in combination with the zealous pursuit of benefits claimants by the Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC (which has been well documented) where any question over entitlement is treated as potential fraud – in alignment with the prevailing media and government narrative – it is yet another instance of low paid workers being exploited, both by their employer and by the administrators of the safety net which is supposed to be there to help them.

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