Unite and other unions have warned that a new employment rights enforcement agency announced by the government falls far short of what is needed to truly protect workers from exploitation and abuse.
Unite has said that without addressing the single biggest threat to workers today – the plague of fire and rehire – the new body will be cold comfort to the tens of thousands of workers who are facing an all-out assault on their wages and conditions by big name employers, as the government stands idly by.
‘One stop shop’?
Announced today (June 8) by business minister Paul Scully, the new government watchdog will bring together three existing bodies – the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate and HMRC’s National Minimum Wage Enforcement – under one umbrella agency.
The new body’s remit will include enforcing laws on the minimum wage, modern slavery and agency work. The government has claimed that creating a ‘one-stop shop’ will improve enforcement of employment laws.
But Unite has said that far from being innovative solutions to match the mounting problems for workers, today’s announced plans are in fact a reheating of former prime minister Theresa May’s discarded proposals.
Unite noted they fail to extend the gangmasters regulations into other sectors of the economy, such as construction, which unions have long said must happen to truly tackle worker exploitation.
Critics also highlighted that the government cannot be trusted on enforcement when it has for years slashed budgets of work-related enforcement agencies. A report last year from Unchecked UK found that Health and Safety Executive (HSE) funding had plummeted by 58 per cent over the last decade, while staff numbers had been slashed by more than a third over the same time period.
Funding for the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate – which will be merged into the new body announced today — has fallen by 49 per cent in the last ten years. The same agency has also seen 57 per cent reduction in staff numbers over the last decade.
Unchecked UK researchers spoke to a former HSE officer who said, “The Health and Safety Executive has faced huge cuts over the last decade. This has impacted both enforcement and effectiveness. We were told to cut proactive inspections – which we did – and this obviously makes it harder to catch workplace abuses, such as the Leicester factory scandal.”
Fire and rehire
Meanwhile, the government has failed at every turn in taking action on fire and rehire, where employers sack workers and rehire them on worse pay and conditions.
Announcing the new employment enforcement agency today (June 8), business minister Paul Scully touched on fire and rehire but again failed to indicate that the government would do anything about the pernicious employment practice now sweeping UK workplaces amid the pandemic.
Scully said today that while “the Government wants to send a crystal clear message to employers that all options must be exhausted before considering dismissal and reengagement of staff”, he noted that fire and rehire was “clearly a complex issue” and there were circumstances where “employers may feel they need to dismiss staff, and potentially re-engage them”.
Unite, which has slammed the government for hiding behind an Acas report on fire and rehire that is yet to be made public, launched a campaign in May to end fire and rehire once and for all.
In addition to fighting fire and rehire in individual workplaces – most notably at Jacob Douwe Egbert’s coffee factory in Banbury, where workers are now taking strike action – Unite is also campaigning for an outright ban of the practice which is illegal in many developed countries.
Highlighting Unite’s campaign, which has drawn widespread support from the public, Unite assistant general secretary for politics and legal Howard Beckett said, “It’s quite clear that the public is firmly on the side of working people when it comes to the horrific practice of fire and rehire.
“There is no grey area here,” he added. “They see that this is an objectionable practice that should be banned. The government has to get on the same page as the voters on this – and fast.”
‘Heavy on spin’
Commenting on today’s announcement of the new agency, Labour’s shadow employment rights minister Andy McDonald lambasted the government for failing to tackle the biggest abuses facing workers, including fire and rehire.
“On their watch, insecure employment in the gig economy has spiralled and fire and rehire has become commonplace, while the long-promised Employment Bill has been ditched,” he said.
“Without outlawing fire and rehire and strengthening employment rights, this announcement falls well short of providing all workers with the decent and secure employment they deserve.”
Meanwhile, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady highlighted how there was no commitment to a timeline for the new agency – since it will be created through primary legislation and so is beholden to the parliamentary timetable – and no additional funding.
“Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect at work,” she said. “But years of underinvestment have left our enforcement system in crisis and millions of workers vulnerable to exploitation.
“Today’s announcement is heavy on spin, but light on action,” O’Grady added. “Rather than clamping down on bad bosses now, the government is today making an announcement with no plan to legislate to make it happen – and no new funding either.”
‘No right to posture about protecting workers’
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey also criticised the government for again failing to take action on fire and rehire.
“Paul Scully is the very minister who denounced fire and rehire as a `bully boy’ practice,” he said. “Yet he has failed to take this opportunity to address this mass-scale assault on UK workers by major employers.
“This is just not good enough,” he added. “We’re fighting day and night to protect tens of thousands of workers right now from raids by their employers that could see them lose their jobs or thousands of pounds in wages.
“Unless and until this repugnant practice is outlawed, employers will continue to find it too easy to sack and mistreat this country’s workers.
“The government has no right to posture about protecting workers while it stands by as the wages and conditions of decent people are being ripped away,” McCluskey continued.
“Instead, the scale of this government’s ambitions for working people are exposed by this sorry reheat of Mrs May’s discarded leftovers.
“The bald reality is that labour laws in this country are just too weak, and the punishments meted out to abusers are too few or too insubstantial to offer any meaningful deterrence. Rogue employers could wait hundreds of years to encounter an enforcement officer, let alone a court of law.
“The truth is that working people are better off in a union that will fight to defend them, rather than hoping that this government will stand by them.”
By Hajera Blagg