The UK government has announced a new workers’ rights watchdog to tackle firms failing to pay their employees the minimum wage, holiday pay or statutory sick pay they are entitled to.
The as-yet-unnamed regulator will be a ‘one-stop shop’ tackling modern slavery, enforcing the minimum wage and protecting agency workers, ministers have said.
The powers of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate and HMRC’s National Minimum Wage Enforcement will be funnelled into one body with the aim of providing “better co-ordination and pooled intelligence”.
The watchdog will also give vulnerable workers the power to get their entitled holiday pay and statutory sick pay without a lengthy employment tribunal process, according to the UK government. It will be created through new legislation when parliamentary time allows it to pass through both houses in Westminster.
Business minister Paul Scully said: “This new workers’ watchdog will help us crack down on any abuses of workers’ rights and take action against companies that turn a blind eye to abuses in their supply chains, while providing a one-stop shop for employees and businesses wanting to understand their rights and obligations.”
While trade unions and workers’ rights charities have welcomed the move, they have also cited concerns over the task ahead. Here’s what they told The Big Issue the new watchdog must overcome to improve the lives of workers in the UK.
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1.Ensure trade unions are involved
Both Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and the GMB union told The Big Issue that the decline in unions’ power in recent years had contributed to workers’ rights issues during the Covid-19 pandemic.
As the new watchdog’s powers are developed through legislation, unions’s input will be key to ensure workers have their say.
“In the courts and in the streets we have been calling for an independent enforcement body to protect worker rights for many years and after the systematic exploitation, abuse and neglect endured by many frontline and precarious workers through the Covid-19 pandemic the need for this has never been clearer,” said Henry Chango-Lopez, general secretary of the IWGB, which represents precarious migrant and gig economy workers.
“This could be a step in the right direction but only if trade unions are heard and the government establishes a truly independent watchdog with the power to enforce the law and protect all workers equally.”
New general secretary of the GMB union, Gary Smith, said improving workers rights must be a vital part of the UK’s Covid-19 recovery.
“A decade of political austerity and rolling back of employment and union rights means the key worker response has been delivered largely on the backs of low paid and precarious workers,” said Smith.
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2. ‘Level up’ employees
The UK government has spoken of ‘levelling up’ since being elected in December 2019 and that talk has been constant through the pandemic in relation to the economy, cities in the north of England and other areas of the Covid-19 recovery.
It must be true for workers too, said GMB general secretary Smith, with the watchdog due to arrive while employment rights are at a crossroads.
“So, our recovery from Covid can go either one or two ways,” Smith said.“We can ‘level-up’ for the ordinary, but extraordinary, people who have kept the country going with proper value for the work they do, backed-up by better and stronger rights at work.
“Or we can go back to the failed ‘business as usual’ model, with a deregulatory agenda which will only squeeze already low wages and employment rights even further.
“So far, it looks like ‘business as usual’ for the UK Government with these announcements.”
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3. Earn workers’ trust and protecting whistleblowers
The new watchdog must give employees enough trust to blow the whistle on bad behaviour without facing repercussions if it is to become the “single, recognisable port of call for workers” to report illegal practices.
Both employment justice charity Work Rights Centre and IWGB reported concerns that migrant workers may face immigration action if they speak out to the new watchdog.
“There are some real challenges ahead,” said Dr Dora-Olivia Vicol, chief executive of the Work Rights Centre. “The watchdog will have to earn workers’ trust by affirming its commitment to their welfare, not just a focus on prosecuting labour exploitation gangs.
“To build this trust, it will need to provide workers with safe, confidential reporting, and clarity on the process, particularly regarding data sharing. Migrant workers often fear that reporting exploitation can trigger immigration enforcement, so it’s essential that the new watchdog creates a safe space that puts workers first.”
The head of the employment justice charity also warned the watchdog will need “resources to substantiate its ambition”, citing “oversubscribed” demand for the HMRC’s minimum wage advice line and the National Referral Mechanism used to report cases of modern slavery.
The fate of migrant and precarious workers on zero hour contracts also concerned IWGB’s Chango-Lopez who warned trust could make or break the watchdog’s ability to crackdown on modern slavery.
He said: “Unless measures are included to protect such workers from deportation and destitution they will not be safe to report illegal activity by employers and the watchdog’s ability to stamp out human trafficking will be seriously impaired.”
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