Employees today have greater rights and protections than ever before. Thanks to human rights legislation, subtle changes to employment law over the decades, stronger regulations protecting against discrimination, and ever increasing health and safety legislation, British employees today have greater legal protection than ever before.
Despite that, exploitation of workers still happens, due to the ever growing gig economy, zero hours contracts, self employment, and other non – traditional working arrangements. Despite such protections, employers are still under great scrutiny over employment rights. To start with, an ever growing number define themselves as self employed. Equally, research from Citizens Advice Bureaux suggests that up to one in ten people are falsely defined as self-employed. This means that they lose out on statutory holiday and sick pay, and the right to earn the National Living Wage (NLW). This also means loses of up to £314 million a year for the Treasury, and places this many responsible businesses at a competitive disadvantage to those unscrupulous employers willing to bend or break the rules.
A comparable exploitation was illustrated by a recent National Audit Office (NAO) review into adult social care. The NAO found that up to 220,000 adult care workers were receiving less than the NLW. The Living Wage is £7.20 for workers aged 25 or over, with the old National Minimum Wage rules applying for workers 24 or younger. Indeed, HMRC discovered that 50% of care sector providers received less than the statutory minimum for providing often extensive care to the long term ill or elderly. Despite such damning evidence, a mere six care providers have been identified and forced to provide back pay to 202 care workers.
Attempting to tackle that and other examples of employee exploitation, the Government recently launched a £1.7 million advertising campaign encouraging employees to check that they are being paid at least the statutory minimum. However, that only addresses half the problem. The other part of the equation is less simple.
A great many workers have little, if any, knowledge of their rights, and of the statutory obligations of employers. Even those that know something about employee rights still would feel uncomfortable in tackling any infringements, with many more not knowing how to go about challenging their employer for such breaches. If an employee feels able to do so, they have to start an unknown legal process with an unknown outcome. This also runs a very real (and illegal) risk of being blacklisted, denied promotions, or other employee benefits, or similar reprisals from management. In that context, it is of little surprise that in many cases, workplace exploitation – sometimes significant – goes unreported and unchallenged.
Sometimes employee exploitation or simple carelessness happens regarding employee rights. When that does happen, it is important for employees to enforce their rights, otherwise all the workplace reform will be meaningless. Employees not being prepared to enforce their legal rights makes a mockery of the legal sector, and employee rights. Although a daunting prospect, employees should remember that they have certain rights in the workplace – and further, it is their right to challenge their employees if those rights are infringed.
The allegations levelled against Sports Direct regarding a culture of ignoring workplace legislation highlighted this – as does the never ending legal row over the exact employment status of Uber drivers as contractors or employees. At least those cases are receiving attention due to the sheer level of media, political and legal scrutiny. Many other similar cases go unreported and unchallenged. It is up employees to be vocal about, and challenge, working practices that are either illegal or exploitation.
Despite great advances in the workplace, and in employee rights – there is still much to be done.