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Issue Date:- 12 May 2008

Business leaders join with unions to call for new deal for the more than a quarter million vulnerable workers

THE more than a quarter million vulnerable workers in the north west “trapped in a continual round of low-paid and insecure work where mistreatment is the norm” deserve a new deal, according to the report of TUC’s Commission on Vulnerable Employment, published Wednesday 5 May 2008, which reveals that across the country there are two million vulnerable workers.

"The north west has the second highest proportion of vulnerable workers (9.1%) in its workforce of any region in Britain. Only the West Midlands has a bigger proportion (10.2%). Evidence from the north west was crucial in helping the Commission come up with its recommendations. What we heard from local unions and advisers from the Citizens Advice Bureaux in the north-west gave us real insight into the problems experienced by vulnerable workers.” said TUC General Secretary and Chair of the Commission Brendan Barber.

The Commission, set up by the TUC and involving employers and independent experts as well as trade unionists, says Government, unions, employers and consumers must now all play a part in ending exploitation at work.

Commissioners say that they were shocked both by the extent of vulnerable work and that much of the poor treatment they found was perfectly legal. The report says that “employment practices attacked as exploitative in the 19th century are still common today” and that the “poor treatment at work that we have found should not be tolerated.”

The Commission visited Manchester as part of its work where it met with representatives from Rochdale Homeworking Group, Aspire Manchester, North Manchester Law Centre, Migrant Workers North West and Liverpool Peoples’ Centre. The Commission report includes personal testimony from vulnerable workers in the North West.

· Pietr (not his real name) is a 25 year old Pole with a higher degree in engineering but only able to get work in food processing through an employment agency. In the run up to Christmas 2007, Pietr had been working 12 hours per day and received no money for three weeks. When he phoned the agency about it he was always told there were problems with the computer system. On one occasion the woman at the agency put the phone down on him. This made Pietr, who was by now really struggling financially, so angry that he decided to act:- “I finish my job before 4.30 and I went to agency office and sit there and I said to manager I waiting for my money now. Manager said this is not possible. I said I need money. I am working every day, 12 hours one day and I don't have money for rent, food. I need money. My last salary was 2 to 3 weeks ago. Manager called security. Security said get out.”

· Originally from Pakistan, Mrs Begum is in her 40s and her restricted English skills and family commitments has left her little option, but part time home sewing work. She does 16 hours a week and gets paid one pound per item sewn. But as she can only do three to four items an hour she gets paid below the minimum wage also she gets no sick or holiday pay.

Commissioner and SERCO Chairman Kevin Beeston said:- “During my time on the Commission, meeting vulnerable workers and hearing the evidence first-hand for myself, I have become increasingly surprised by my own and society’s ignorance of these issues.   It’s disappointing to see how low the morals of some unscrupulous employers can be, and it’s time society stopped turning a blind eye to these workplace abuses that are shaming the world of work and tarnishing the reputations of good employers.”

TUC General Secretary and Chair of the Commission Brendan Barber added:- “All the Commissioners – whatever their backgrounds, were shocked at just how vulnerable some workers are in the north-west and the rest of the country today.

Their treatment is a national scandal, and we need urgent action.   But we have to cut thought the sterile debate that has turned any proposal to help even the most exploited people at work into a pro-union, anti-business old Labour move. Good employers have nothing to fear; and much to gain; from policies that stop them being undercut by bad employers who break the law or use loopholes to get round it.”

The report says that vulnerable workers suffer because they do not know their rights, lack an escape route from vulnerable jobs, cannot get their rights enforced, and often suffer when they try to and that they fall through gaps in employment law that mean they do not enjoy the decent minimum standards to which the Government is committed.

Among the recommendations made by the Commission in its report, available free online. These are some key parts of the findings:-

· To counter widespread ignorance of employment rights, particularly among vulnerable workers, there should be a major awareness programme and better funding of employment rights advice.

· To counter the lack of proactive and co-ordinated enforcement of employment rights, there should be more funding for enforcement agencies such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the minimum wage enforcement unit of HMRC, changes in the law that will allow them to work together more closely and more proactive enforcement that targets bad employers without waiting for complaints from their insecure victims.

· Some straightforward breaches of employment rights, such as illegal deductions from pay packets, which currently can only be enforced by individuals taking difficult and slow Employment Tribunal cases should be policed by an agency such as HMRC’s minimum wage enforcement unit.

· A new Fair Employment Commission involving employers, unions and civil society groups should co-ordinate the work of enforcement agencies, monitor awareness of employment rights and make recommendations to Government.

· The Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority (GLA) regime should apply to other sectors where agencies use vulnerable workers as there is evidence of exploitative treatment in sectors that are not currently regulated such as care homes or construction.

· There should be a reform of employment status law that denies rights and any security to workers who do not count as employees as they do not have a contract of employment.

· Equal treatment for agency workers with permanent employees doing the same work.

· Changes in immigration law to reduce the vulnerability of migrant workers who raise complaints to losing their jobs and thus facing destitution.

· Vulnerable workers should be helped to move into better jobs, through more training – including ESOL for migrant workers – and a more flexible benefits system.

Commissioner and Chair of the Land Securities Group Paul Myners said:- “The Commission’s report contains an extensive list of interesting ideas and recommendations with which a responsible Government, responsible employers and others concerned with the vulnerable in our society will want to engage.”

Oxford University Senior Research Fellow Fran Bennett added:- “Many jobs in which people may be vulnerable are mostly done by women. Caring and cleaning are prime examples. But we all need these jobs to be done.

So we must all take action to ensure they are properly valued and the people who do them properly protected.”

Commissioner Mohammed Aziz, Chair of the European Network Against Racism, said:- “My work with the Commission has opened my eyes to the realities of low paid vulnerable work in today’s society.

When we started our work I had no idea about the extent of the poor treatment that we have uncovered.

Newly arrived migrant workers sharing working 16 hours on production line shifts and beds between shifts, agency workers being sacked without a day’s notice and couriers being forced to pay for their own petrol out of wages that are already below the legal minimum.

This practice is unacceptable – and our report sets out what needs to change to ensure that it is challenged.”

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