* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Britain's social protection system lacks the resources to effectively protect vulnerable key workers from COVID-19
Lucila Granada is the chief executive of Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX)
The COVID-19 crisis has shown the true value and key role that low-paid workers play in the functioning of our society and economy. Low-paid workers are literally keeping this country running, from harvesting and preparing the food we eat to protecting our health by keeping hospitals and other public spaces clean. Without them, other sectors of the economy would grind to a halt.
Yet, the pandemic has also highlighted pre-existing inequalities, significant gaps in the UK’s social protection system and the risks of exploitation attached to various sectors of the economy. As pointed out in FLEX’s recent briefing, many workers in low paid jobs are being dismissed, denied their entitlements, or simply falling through the cracks of government schemes; while others are being pressured to work longer hours or under unsafe conditions.
Furthermore, new risks are emerging. For instance in agriculture, where the pandemic has disrupted migrant workers’ mobility and increased the pressure to maintain the food supply chain, the risk of deception in recruitment, overwork, and inability to maintain appropriate social distancing and other health and safety measures have increased.
Applauded as ‘essential’ but still treated as disposable, migrant workers in low paid jobs are being forced to navigate the contradiction between a grateful society and an uncaring system that puts their lives at risk.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has led to an enormous increase in workers seeking advice and reporting workplace abuse.
Acas - the official advice line on workplace rights and rules - received up to three times the amount of calls in March this year compared to the same month in 2019. Flooded with demand, trade unions, advisory and community organisations have been working against the clock to translate and disseminate official guidance and government announcements in different languages, and applying for donations and emergency funding to provide advice and support for those affected.
Responding to the fear and anxiety caused by the lack of reassuring measures protecting workers’ safety, some unions have even started distributing their own personal protective equipment to their members.
The enforcement of employment rights is crucial for preventing workplace abuse, including modern slavery offences. If there was ever a time for UK labour inspection to be proactive, this is it.
Following government guidance, UK labour inspection agencies quickly moved their operations online and, with their work not being listed as ‘key’ or ‘essential’, many of these agencies opted to stop or reduce their face-to-face inspections. In some cases, this was done partly ‘to reduce the risk’ to their own staff, leaving vulnerable workers to fend for themselves.
Whereas the government is offering grants to businesses with vulnerable workers in their international supply chains, no emergency funding has been announced to enable the agencies dedicated to support vulnerable workers in the UK during this period of intense risk.
Unfortunately, research shows that those workers who are most vulnerable to labour abuses, including sexual harassment at work, are also the least likely to bring a case to an employment tribunal. The danger of losing employment or being given less work as a result of complaining may be too significant a risk for many.
Evidence from the Low Pay Commission (2017) suggests that women, who are more likely than men to experience sexual harassment, are less likely to make a complaint. Recent research by the Resolution Foundation (2019) found that people in elementary occupations like cleaning also have a below-average application rate to employment tribunals.
When needed the most, the UK labour inspection system lacks the resources to effectively protect vulnerable workers.
There will be a time when, confronted with the balance sheet, we will need to come to terms with the true impact of our shortcomings. However, all is not lost; there are still ways to alleviate the risks to workers, including investing in labour inspection as a key aspect of government’s response to modern slavery.
We need a system of inspection that is not only able to sustain its operations through this crisis, but one that proactively responds to the long-evidenced and endemic levels of abuse faced by workers in low-pay.
A system that is sufficiently resourced to carry out proactive workplace checks and develop and implement comprehensive prevention strategies that engage organisations trusted by those most at risk, such as trade unions and community groups.
A system that migrant workers can trust, that offers secure channels of reporting for all.
A system that shows that the UK is willing to put its money where its mouth is and protect the rights of the workers it now recognises as essential.