No Worker Left Behind: Protecting Vulnerable Workers from Exploitation During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic
This briefing builds on the understanding that labour exploitation is part of a spectrum ranging from labour compliance through to labour law violations, culminating at extreme exploitation in the form of forced labour. Research by FLEX and others shows that experiences of labour exploitation are not static; instead they can move along the spectrum as a result of changes to their personal (e.g. age, disability), situational (e.g. migrant status, employment type) and/or circumstantial (e.g. economic destitution) vulnerabilities. Often these vulnerabilities intersect and can compound each other, making certain groups more likely to experience labour exploitation. People who are at risk of poverty, destitution and/or who do not have support systems and networks on which to rely are at higher risk of exploitation, including modern slavery offences.
The pandemic has triggered unprecedented government action, including emergency measures affecting all sectors of the labour market, labour inspections and access to support. In this rapidly changing context, it is crucial to monitor closely the impact of the Coronavirus situation on the most vulnerable groups of workers, including:
1. Workers in low-paid and insecure work. People who are struggling to provide for themselves and/or their families are at higher risk of exploitation as their primary concern is survival. Fear of losing work, and any meagre income it provides, is a major deterrent to reporting abuse and many workers are willing to endure labour abuses and even exploitation in order to continue a subsistence standard of living. Insecure work arrangements, such as false self-employment and zero-hours contracts, create further instability as workers are not guaranteed an income and can more easily have their work terminated.
Research shows that individuals in low-paid jobs spend most of their income on basic necessities, so they are less likely to have savings and therefore to be resilient to economic shocks affecting their incomes. In the UK, 56% of all people in poverty are in work. Among them are those working under insecure contracts or cash in hand in the informal economy where they have limited access to employment rights.
Struggling to make ends meet, low-paid workers are at high risk of falling into debt and facing destitution. Research shows that workers in low-paid sectors like agriculture, cleaning, hospitality, the gig economy, warehousing and domestic work – all sectors heavily affected by the Coronavirus outbreak – were, prior to the pandemic, already at higher risk of experiencing labour rights violations, such as underpayment, excessive working hours, denial of sick pay and other entitlements. Several of these sectors were highlighted as high risk by the government’s appointed Director of Labour Market Enforcement (DLME).
2. Migrant workers. Migrant workers are disproportionately represented in low-paid, precarious and informal work. They may also face additional situational vulnerabilities compared to non-migrants, including language barriers, limited support networks and lack of knowledge of labour rights or where to access support. Government policies affecting migrants, such as restrictions on accessing social protections (e.g. no recourse to public funds) create additional vulnerabilities for migrants. Undocumented migrants are particularly at risk of exploitation because working without documentation is a criminal offence in the UK. Research has found that many documented and undocumented workers do not report their employers when they experience abuse and exploitation for fear that seeking help will lead to immigration enforcement action being taken against them. This enables unscrupulous employers to continue imposing abusive conditions with minimal fear of repercussions. Some undocumented workers are purposely recruited, both from abroad and within the UK, for exploitative purposes, as the penalties that workers could face under the current rules act as a deterrent to them seeking help and therefore make them extremely vulnerable and more easily controlled.
3. Women workers. Women are disproportionately represented in low-paid and precarious work. They may face additional vulnerabilities related to gendered cultural and structural issues, such as discrimination related to pregnancy and maternity, and gender-based violence and sexual harassment at work. These may make them more at risk of exploitation in the new circumstances. Women may also be vulnerable to exploitation due to carrying a disproportionate care burden, as this pushes them into more casual/flexible employment and makes them less able to leave abusive situations due to others being dependent on their earnings.
Many of these workers are at the heart of the UK’s response to the pandemic: harvesting fruits and vegetables, processing and delivering orders, or cleaning hospitals and other public spaces to keep key sectors running and delay the spread of the virus. Others have suddenly lost their source of income and are in desperate need of support. In fact, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that those in low income are seven times more likely than high earners to work in a business sector that was shut down as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic in the UK.
The Coronavirus crisis is having a particularly strong impact on workers who were already at higher risk of experiencing labour abuses and exploitation. The crisis is also highlighting an urgent need for appropriate support and social safety nets, from adequate sick pay to protection against unfair dismissal.
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