Toggle high contrast
Issue date
Two million UK workers are “trapped in a continual round of low-paid and insecure work where mistreatment is the norm” according to the findings of the TUC's Commission on Vulnerable Employment, published today (Wednesday).

date: Monday 5 May 2008

embargo: 00:01hrs Wednesday 7 May 2008

Two million UK workers are 'trapped in a continual round of low-paid and insecure work where mistreatment is the norm' according to the findings of the TUC's Commission on Vulnerable Employment, published today (Wednesday).

The Commission, set up by the TUC and involving employers and independent experts as well as trade unionists, says Government, unions, employers and consumers must now all play a part in ending exploitation at work.

Commissioners say that they were shocked both by the extent of vulnerable work and that much of the poor treatment they found was perfectly legal. The report says that 'employment practices attacked as exploitative in the 19th century are still common today' and that the 'poor treatment at work that we have found should not be tolerated.'

Commissioner and SERCO Chairman Kevin Beeston said: 'During my time on the Commission, meeting vulnerable workers and hearing the evidence first-hand for myself, I have become increasingly surprised by my own and society's ignorance of these issues.

'It's disappointing to see how low the morals of some unscrupulous employers can be, and it's time society stopped turning a blind eye to these workplace abuses that are shaming the world of work and tarnishing the reputations of good employers.'

TUC General Secretary and Chair of the Commission Brendan Barber said, 'All the Commissioners - whatever their backgrounds - were shocked at just how vulnerable some workers are in today's Britain. Their treatment is a national scandal, and we need urgent action.

'But we have to cut thought the sterile debate that has turned any proposal to help even the most exploited people at work into a pro-union, anti-business old Labour move. Good employers have nothing to fear - and much to gain - from policies that stop them being undercut by bad employers who break the law or use loopholes to get round it.'

The report says that vulnerable workers suffer because they do not know their rights, lack an escape route from vulnerable jobs, cannot get their rights enforced - and often suffer when they try to - and that they fall through gaps in employment law that mean they do not enjoy the decent minimum standards to which the Government is committed. The report reveals OECD research showing that the UK has less employment protection than any other advanced economy apart from the USA.

Among the recommendations made by the Commission's report, available free on-line at (pre-embargo media access to the report, quotes from supportive organisations, quotes from commissioner and additional research are available at are:

  • To counter widespread ignorance of employment rights, particularly among vulnerable workers, there should be a major awareness programme and better funding of employment rights advice.
  • To counter the lack of proactive and co-ordinated enforcement of employment rights, there should be more funding for enforcement agencies such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the minimum wage enforcement unit of HMRC, changes in the law that will allow them to work together more closely and more proactive enforcement that targets bad employers without waiting for complaints from their insecure victims.
  • Some straightforward breaches of employment rights, such as illegal deductions from pay packets, which currently can only be enforced by individuals taking difficult and slow Employment Tribunal cases should be policed by an agency such as HMRC's minimum wage enforcement unit.
  • A new Fair Employment Commission involving employers, unions and civil society groups should co-ordinate the work of enforcement agencies, monitor awareness of employment rights and make recommendations to Government.
  • The Gangmasters' Licensing Authority (GLA) regime should apply to other sectors where agencies use vulnerable workers as there is evidence of exploitative treatment in sectors that are not currently regulated such as care homes or construction.
  • There should be a reform of employment status law that denies rights and any security to workers who do not count as employees as they do not have a contract of employment.
  • Equal treatment for agency workers with permanent employees doing the same work.
  • Changes in immigration law to reduce the vulnerability of migrant workers who raise complaints to losing their jobs and thus facing destitution.
  • Vulnerable workers should be helped to move into better jobs, through more training - including ESOL for migrant workers - and a more flexible benefits system.

Commissioner Belinda Earl, Chief Executive, Jaeger, said: 'During my work on the Commission I was able to meet with some of the UK's most vulnerable workers in London. I was shocked that such poor practice still exists; one worker that I spoke to told me he had worked 70 hours a week, in a fast food takeaway, for 3 years without any paid holiday - and he was not even being paid the minimum wage. I also met with migrant domestic workers, who were being underpaid and exploited - and who faced physical and sexual violence from their employers. It is

unacceptable that these practices exist today and more action is needed to prevent these extreme violations of employment law.'

Commissioner and Chair of the Land Securities Group Paul Myners said: 'The Commission's report contains an extensive list of interesting ideas and recommendations with which a responsible Government, responsible employers and others concerned with the vulnerable in our society will want to engage.'

Other organisations have commented on the report:

Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: 'Businesses that exploit workers in today's skills drought - which means, for example, that talented Poles are shuttling back and forth between Gatwick and Gdansk - will soon learn that they simply won't be able to compete for in-demand staff. But in the meantime the TUC Commission's proposals for stronger law, training and education are commendable. They will protect vulnerable workers and help create the level playing field that incentivises good businesses to find and stick with best practice.'

Kate Wareing, Director for UK Poverty, Oxfam said: 'Oxfam welcomes the conclusions of the TUC's Commission on Vulnerable Employment (COVE) and strongly backs its call for action to help millions of vulnerable low-paid workers. Oxfam supports the recommendations of the report for better legislative protection for vulnerable workers - and stronger enforcement of existing regulations. We urge the Government to look closely at the findings of Hard Work, Hidden Lives, to talk to vulnerable workers and the organisations that represent them, and to take action to ensure that those 'in work' are able to earn enough to live on, and to work in safe and dignified conditions.'

Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, said: 'This is a timely report and one that deserves to be read widely. One of the most challenging aspects of the global market is the risk of increasing the material insecurity of workers and this often hidden problem needs to be confronted. Furthermore, a society where family life and the rights of minorities are respected cannot be one that tolerates the exploitation of those who find themselves at the sharp end in the workplace. The stark stories told within this report and the conclusions it draws about vulnerable and low paid workers are a wake-up call. A society that seeks wealth and welfare for all needs to have the highest regard for those whose voices are not always the first or loudest to be heard.'

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, Secretary General, The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), said: 'We cannot remain passive about the plight of vulnerable workers after this report, with its facts and moving case studies. Strong action is now needed on many fronts, and community bodies too have their role to play, for example in shaming bad employers, increasing employment rights awareness and promoting union membership.'

Paul Whitehouse Chairman, GLA, said: 'We are determined to prevent exploitation of workers. If HMG wish to extend our remit into other sectors, as the Commission recommends, our committed and enthusiastic staff are willing and ready to accept the challenge of reducing exploitation elsewhere. This would have the added benefit not only of bringing more people into the formal economy, but it would spread our cost base over a greater number of licencees, and allow us with a small increase in our enforcement staff to be much more effective, thus achieving the efficiencies which the Treasury quite rightly demands of us.'

Mark Boleat, Chairman, Association of Labour Providers (ALP), said: 'I agree with the Commission's recommendation that the Government should abolish the Accession States Worker Registration Scheme immediately. It has served little useful purpose, merely counting those workers who choose to register while ignoring those who do not.'

Regional breakdown of vulnerable worker statistics


Total number of vulnerable workers in the region

Total number of workers in region

Per cent vulnerable workers in the region

Northern Ireland




the West Midlands




the north-west




the north-east




Yorkshire and the Humber








the East Midlands








the east of England




the south-west




the south-east









Source TUC estimates of vulnerable workers (including informal) from official statistics

=SUM(ABOVE) 2,047,099

=SUM(ABOVE) 25,293,614


- All TUC press releases can be found at

- Register for the TUC's press extranet: a service exclusive to journalists wanting to access pre-embargo releases and reports from the TUC. Visit


Media enquiries:
Liz Chinchen T: 020 7467 1248 M: 07778 158175 E:
Rob Holdsworth T: 020 7467 1372 M: 07717 531150 E:
Elly Brenchley T: 020 7467 1337 M: 07900 910624 E:

Enable Two-Factor Authentication

To access the admin area, you will need to setup two-factor authentication (TFA).

Setup now