Two years after a public consultation closed on proposals for a Single Enforcement Body for workers’ rights, the government has finally responded.
Confirming this week (08 June 2021) that plans for the new watchdog will go ahead, Business Minister, Paul Scully, said the government “will do whatever we can to protect and enhance workers’ rights”.
But the details released so far contain worrying indications that it is, in fact, doing the bare minimum.
Carolyn Jones, Director of the Institute of Employment Rights, said: “This new body will only protect the most mistreated workers from the worst kinds of exploitation. For the majority of people – 14.5 million of whom are already living in poverty – it will do nothing.
“Worse, current details suggest it might even weaken labour law, by introducing a system of ‘compliance notices’ rather than civil penalties for what the government describes as ‘lesser’ breaches of the law. It is yet to be seen which types of exploitation are considered unimportant.
“These proposals are a fatally watered down version of the IER’s plans for a Labour Inspectorate. It appears to have virtually no proactive role to ensure compliance with the law, relying on workers to speak out, but offers nothing to prevent employers from dismissing insecure workers in retaliation for complaints made.
“Other countries, even the USA, are announcing shifts in their policies towards progressive trade union rights and regulating the gig economy.
“But not Westminster. On the same day this new body was announced, it committed to plans to weaken the trade union movement further.
“Government knew it had to do something about the rising scourge of exploitative work, but this really is the very least they can do.”
See below for an intial analysis of the proposals.
What is the Single Enforcement Body?
The Single Enforcement Body combines the forces of the HMRC’s National Minimum Wage enforcement unit, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, and the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate.
It will continue the work of these agencies in enforcing National Minimum Wage and Modern Slavery laws, but will also have the remit to enforce statutory sick and holiday pay, to investigate complaints brought by workers, and to advise workers and employers on employment law.
A sticking plaster over bad policy
The government has been forced to respond to the explosion of insecure work its own policies have created.
Around one in nine workers in the UK is currently employed insecurely following a rise in precarious roles since the financial crisis. By 2019, most new jobs were actually ‘self-employed’ (although TUC research has demonstrated a huge proportion of this so-called self-employment is either bogus or extremely low paid, with nearly half on less than the minimum wage). The number of new zero-hour contracts in 2019 nearly equalled the number of new secure employee contracts.
For 11 years, the government has been aware of this rise and done nothing to prevent it. Instead, it has extolled the virtues of the UK’s “flexible labour market” – although with two-thirds of zero-hour contract workers saying they would prefer guaranteed hours, it’s clear that flexibility only goes one way.
Not only did it ignore the problem, but the government fuelled the casual economy with its policymaking, first with the introduction of punitive benefit sanctions that force unemployed people to take poor-quality work; then with the Trade Union Act 2016, which made it harder for trade unions to protect vulnerable workers. Its decision to introduce hefty fees when workers took their employer to tribunal to try and enforce their rights was only overturned when the Supreme Court found it to be unlawful. Despite this, there have been murmurs from Whitehall of reintroducing the scheme.
With employers granted the ability to effectively fire and hire at will – and insecure workers too afraid to rock the boat and potentially lose their livelihoods – exploitation rose sharply.
The Single Enforcement Body is the first attempt of the government to reduce this exploitation – but it does not seek to solve the problem at its root.