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  • UK’s weak enforcement regime lets rogue employers ride roughshod over fundamental workers’ rights, warns TUC 

  • If ministers fail to deliver the employment bill they will be “toadying” up to bad bosses, says union body  

The TUC has today (Thursday) warned that a lack of enforcement could “kick the legs out from under” government plans to tackle minimum wage abuses by companies like P&O. 

The union body highlights that only the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has the legal right to board ships for inspection to address safety concerns and enforce seafarers’ rights under the ILO Maritime Labour Convention, including ensuring seafarers are paid at the level set out in their contracts which is often below the minimum wage.  

But HMRC inspectors, who are responsible for making sure workers are paid the minimum wage, do not have the legal right to board vessels for inspections. 

Government plans to tackle P&O-style abuses include giving UK ports the power to refuse access to ferry companies that don’t pay the minimum wage. Checks by HMRC inspectors are then meant to identify ferry operators operating in UK waters that are not compliant with UK minimum wage rules. 

The TUC says that unless enforcement powers are significantly beefed up, these plans will be unworkable in practice. 

The union body is calling for: 

  • A framework agreement with unions at both ends of UK-Europe shipping routes that sets minimum rates of pay and gives unions a role in enforcing them 

  • Greater powers for HMRC inspectors to board ships to check whether companies are paying staff the minimum wage; 

  • A significant boost to the number of labour market inspectors and greater funding for enforcement agencies; 

  • Training more HMRC staff in maritime minimum wage enforcement 

Recent reports have suggested that the government has yet again shelved the employment bill – more than two years after the legislation was first announced.  

The TUC says only new legislation which beefs up worker protections will prevent another P&O-style scandal. It adds that if ministers fail to deliver the employment bill in this year’s Queen’s Speech, they will be toadying up to bad bosses.  

Enforcement crisis 

The TUC says the UK is in the midst of an enforcement crisis, which goes well beyond the maritime industry.  

For too many workers, basic employment rights like holiday pay, the minimum wage and contracted working hours are illusory because they are not being enforced effectively. 

The union body calls the scale and nature of non-compliance on basic workplace rights “staggering”. The latest pre-pandemic data shows that nearly half a million workers are paid less than the national minimum wage, and nearly two million employees miss out on holiday pay. 

The TUC adds that there are simply not enough inspectors to do the work required.  

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) benchmark for inspectors, which it recommends all countries meet, is for countries to guarantee one inspector per 10,000 workers. The UK would need an additional 1,797 labour market inspectors to meet the ILO benchmark. 

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:  

"No one should be denied their basic rights at work or the pay they are owed. 

“A lack of enforcement will kick the legs out from under the government’s minimum wage plans. 

"Our weak enforcement regime lets rogue employers like P&O ride roughshod over fundamental workers’ rights. 

“The UK is in the midst of a crisis of enforcement that goes well beyond the maritime industry.  

“Ministers must properly fund and empower enforcement bodies so they can recruit and train additional qualified inspectors and inspect more workplaces. That’s how you stop bad bosses from getting away with flagrant labour rights abuses.  

“And they should force ferry operators to sign an agreement with unions to ensure pay is well above the minimum wage.” 

On the wider need for stronger action from the government on P&O, O’Grady added: 

“The P&O scandal is one of the most shameful moments in recent industrial relations history. But right now, there is a real risk that P&O will get off relatively scot-free. 

“If ministers fail to deliver the employment bill again, they will be toadying up to bad bosses. 

“Only new legislation that beefs up worker protections will prevent another P&O-style scandal. A feeble statutory code on fire and rehire won’t cut it. 

“And ministers need to do everything they can to ensure P&O reinstates staff on their previous pay – a union-negotiated rate that is significantly higher than the national minimum wage. 

“They must press on with prosecuting the company and its directors and sever all ties with DP World, including lucrative freeport contracts.” 

Editors note

- TUC action plan to reform labour market enforcement (May 2021)  

- TUC – Government must “come clean” over plans for workers’ rights (June 2022)  
- The Trades Union Congress (TUC) exists to make the working world a better place for everyone. We bring together the 5.5 million working people who make up our 48 member unions. We support unions to grow and thrive, and we stand up for everyone who works for a living. 


TUC press office   
020 7467 1248  

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