Workers in garment factories in Leicester and beyond deserve better protection - particularly the migrant workers who make up much of the workforce.
The TUC has today set out its demand for joint liability, allowing workers to claim unpaid wages, holiday pay and sick pay from anyone above them in the supply chain.
This is aimed at stopping big businesses from avoiding their responsibilities by outsourcing production to a long supply chain of dodgy sub-contractors who rely on underpaid and vulnerable workers.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the vital role that migrant workers play in providing essential services such as health care, transport, retail and food production has never been more evident.
However, the pandemic has also exposed how structural racism in workplaces and communities leaves so many Black and minority ethnic (BME) workers doing poorly paid, insecure work.
The TUC has consistently raised concerns about the way that employers have exploited workers in sectors such as social care and agriculture.
The following areas are where urgent change is needed.
Tackling insecure work
At least 3.7 million workers in the UK, around one in nine of the workforce, are in insecure work. These include agency, casual and seasonal workers, those whose main job is on a zero-hours contract and self-employed workers who are paid less than the National Living Wage.
Significant numbers of migrant workers are employed in sectors that are low-paid and where zero-hours contracts are prevalent, such as food production, health and social care and the gig economy.
Migrant women in insecure forms of work are also at higher risk of workplace sexual harassment but often have very limited recourse to redress.
A system of joint liability would ensure that employers who use strategies to transfer their obligations to other parties, can still be found liable for any breaches of the core employment rights of the people who work for them.
A recent European Federation of Food Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT) report identifies the appalling working, employment and housing conditions across the European meat industry as the reason why meat processing plants have become vectors for the spread of Covid-19.
These concerns are not unique to the meat sector. In the case of Leicester, a report published by Labour Behind the Label (LBL) revealed that garment workers were told to come into work while sick or be sacked. In several factories of up to 100 people, workers were forced to carry on working while known to be covid-positive.
The government needs to introduce a ban on zero-hours contracts and provide a decent floor of rights for all workers.
Underfunding of enforcement bodies
The inability of labour market regulators to protect workers during the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the weakness of our systems to enforce employment rights.
Our labour market enforcement system is under-resourced. The 2018/19 annual report from the Director of Labour Market Enforcement (DLME) highlighted that the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate (EAS), which monitors employment agencies, has one inspector per 2,850 agencies. In 2018 there were over 31,500 employment agencies.
This means that for far too many workers, basic employment rights are non-existent. Meanwhile, employers are confident that if they break the law there will be no consequences.
We urgently need more resources ploughed into enforcement areas, not the distraction of combining them together into a single enforcement body as the government proposes.
Migrant workers face challenges accessing employment rights
Exploitation of migrant workers often includes unlawful deduction from wages, lack of holiday or notice pay, and being subject to various forms of discrimination.
In workplaces where there is union recognition, workers are able to claim their rights through collective bargaining. However, the sectors migrants tend to work in often have low union density.
Workers in these sectors can seek to claim rights through an employment tribunal, but this is often not a realistic option for migrant workers, particularly those who are undocumented or have precarious immigration status.
The ever-growing labyrinth of immigration legislation and Home Office regulations means a growing number of workers find themselves in this situation. This is why the TUC believes that workers’ employment status needs to be separated from their resident status.
Migrants are also less able to claim rights at work as they may be scared of their employer, do not feel confident making a claim in English or are not aware of their rights.
The TUC is supporting unions to organise migrant workers in sectors with low union density and has produced a guide to joining a union and employment rights in 21 languages.
Dismantling the Hostile Environment
Most non-EU citizens who are not yet permanently settled residents are ineligible for income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance and Universal Credit because they have no recourse to public funds.
Since the Immigration Act (2014), non-EU citizens have also had to pay to access the NHS.
The government needs to recognise that this hostile environment has resulted in a lack of trust in the state institutions among BME and migrant communities that is resulting in people not accessing health services because they are afraid of being targeted by immigration services.
The Immigration and Social Security Bill being debated in parliament threatens to extend this lack of trust and insecurity to EU citizens, especially those with BME backgrounds.
The government’s recent single enforcement body consultation commits to even closer working between immigration enforcement, the benefits fraud office and enforcement agencies.
This is counterproductive as there is clear evidence that workers are deterred from making complaints as they fear being referred to immigration enforcement. Joint working should cease and a firewall between immigration enforcement and employment rights enforcement agencies should be established.
The exploitation of workers in Leicester and other cities is a scandal.
Covid-19 has shone a light on what has long been happening: the exploitation of migrant workers who struggle to enforce their employment rights.
We urgently need action to ensure that workers are protected from bad bosses.
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