This report exposes a hidden Britain. It shows that employment practices attacked as exploitative in the nineteenth century are still common today. It reveals that vulnerable work is not inevitable, and that women, people from black and ethnic minority groups and disabled people are more likely to suffer its consequences. Around two million workers are trapped in a continual round of low-paid and insecure work where mistreatment is the norm. People providing the services on which our society and economy rely can therefore find themselves without the most basic standards of fair treatment in the workplace. We find this intolerable.
Our analysis was shaped by evidence from academics, politicians, employers, enforcement agencies and civil society groups. We commissioned new research, ran an extensive public consultation and gathered testimony from both vulnerable workers and their advocates. Throughout our report we have also highlighted case studies of workers who have experienced vulnerable employment – and they have shared their stories with us to highlight not only their own experiences but those of their many colleagues. We thank all who contributed; their evidence has helped to make this a thorough and wide-ranging investigation into vulnerable employment in the UK.
While we expected to find poor treatment, its extent has stunned us all. Worst of all, much of it took place within a legal framework that fails to prevent exploitation. We have met production-line agency staff working long days and nights for less pay than permanent colleagues. Homeworkers have told us about lifetimes of poverty, being paid less than £1 per item of clothing they sewed, and receiving no paid holiday or sickness leave. We have heard from construction workers who had been injured at work but were not entitled to welfare protection or sick pay because of their contractual and immigration status. Office cleaners on casual contracts told us that they had no choice but to keep working when they were ill, as they could neither afford to lose a day’s pay nor risk the sack.
But employers also break the law with impunity. Every day in cities, towns and villages illegal treatment goes unchallenged. Wherever we went we found it remarkably easy to find people who had experienced the most shocking injustice. We met workers who had spent 70-hour weeks on around £2 an hour, and had been sacked immediately they challenged their employer; hotel chambermaids who had to be available to work from 8am, but who were not paid for the extra hours if rooms were vacated in late morning; migrant domestic workers who had been beaten or sexually assaulted, but lived in too much fear of deportation to report these serious crimes; and security guards who had worked for months but had never been paid.
If vulnerable employment is to end, loopholes in the laws that are meant to protect workers must be closed. The lack of legal protection sends the message that treating workers unfairly and unequally is acceptable. But resolving these deficiencies in the law is only part of the answer. There needs to be far greater awareness of rights at work. Workers who suffer illegal treatment should have access to effective, coordinated enforcement. We want to see better opportunities to progress from low-paid and insecure jobs. We also call on unions themselves to do much more to assist vulnerable workers. We want to see consumers – already keen to support fair trade and environmental sustainability abroad – apply pressure to ensure that fair employment practices start in the UK and go right through supply chains, whether they end here or overseas.
Our report looks at why vulnerable work exists today, and recommends practical and policy solutions that can help to end such exploitation. We are certain that change is needed – and is possible. While some jobs will always be paid less than others, this does not mean that workers doing them should not expect decency and respect. We reject the argument that vulnerable employment is a price that has to be paid for national prosperity; our evidence shows it is possible to build a successful economy without a hidden army of vulnerable workers. We will be monitoring the progress of our work.
We make a formal request to the TUC General Council that they take ownership of our recommendations, and act to follow up on their implementation. As a Commission we have also agreed to meet again in May 2009 to reflect upon progress towards our key calls for action.
We take an unashamed moral stand. The endemic poor treatment that we have found should not be tolerated. Not just government, but trade unions, employers, civil society groups and citizens as both voters and consumers must take every opportunity to challenge vulnerable employment. Progress has been made and we pay tribute to all those who are making a difference. But unless we all accept the challenge many vulnerable workers will continue to suffer. It is up to all of us to act.