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Employment

‘Employment watchdog’ needed to crackdown on bad bosses, says charity

Demand for employment advice boomed during the pandemic as struggling bosses sought to shortchange staff in order to stay afloat.

An employment “watchdog” would protect people in low-paid sectors being exploited by bosses who continue to violate even the most basic of workers’ rights, a charity has urged.

Citizens Advice Scotland says it saw some “staggering cases of workers being mistreated” during the pandemic, such as workers denied statutory sick pay, working hours withdrawn as a form of punishment, and the use of zero-hour contracts to side-step employee rights.

The UK government should bring forward “an employment rights watchdog with real teeth to tackle bad bosses,” said spokesman for the charity David Scott, as well as invest in “better promotion and awareness of rights at work.”

Demand for employment support for low-paid workers in insecure jobs boomed during the pandemic, with Citizens Advice Scotland saying it helped 40 per cent more people with employment issues than the previous period. 

The Scottish government has recently announced its  Fair Work plan to improve working conditions in Scotland by 2025, focusing on improving equal access to employment, more diversity in workplaces and reducing the gender pay gap

These measures, while welcomed, are not the primary issue faced by the majority of people Citizens Advice Scotland supports, says the charity, which predominantly works with people in low-paid and insecure work. 

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They more often face “violations of very basic employment rights”, says the charity’s report, and primarily need “better enforcement of their already-existing rights.”

A Scottish bar and restaurant group was recently accused of “failure to adhere to their most basic obligations of duty of care” to employees, who were “systematically mistreated.” 

The owners of Macmerry300 and Abandon Ship Ltd have denied the accusations, backed by union Unite, but employee grievances including failure to pay pension contributions, sexual harrasment claims, failure to follow Covid-19 protocols, among others, are stacking up. 

An employment watchdog, as proposed by the charity, would involve an easy, potentially anonymised process, where “employees, employers, and witnesses can report concerns that result in swift investigative action.”

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When an employer is found to be breaking the law, the employment watchdog would respond with “responses guided by the severity and impact of the non-compliance,” reads the report. 

At present, some options are available to workers but raising grievances is rarely easy. If an employee believes their employee rights are being broken, they are encouraged to report issues around the minimum wage or sick pay to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). 

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) exists to help resolve disputes between employers and employees but the resulting decision is not legally binding. 

An employee who believes they are a victim of mistreatment can try to take their boss to an employment tribunal, however this process has been criticised as lengthy and confusing. 

The Low Pay Commission and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) publish an annual list names and shames employers who refuse to pay the minimum wage, as well as fining the company. However, recent research from think-tank the Resolution Foundation, found that such fines aren’t steep enough to be a deterrent and publicly shaming them has little impact. 

“With the UK facing a cost of living crisis which is set to get even worse in the spring, the last thing working people need is to be ripped off and treated badly at work,” added Scott.

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