Labour losing race to the top on employment rights policy

So, the supposedly free-market Tories have had their Stalinist-sounding ‘long-term economic plan’, and now Labour has a ‘better economic plan’. Towards the end of the latter, a chapter entitled ‘Supporting firms to win the race to the top, not get dragged into a race to the bottom’, states:

Too often it is assumed that the only way for firms in sectors such as retail, hospitality and social care to compete is by cutting employee pay and conditions. But many firms in these sectors want to be able to compete through higher skill, higher wage business models, without being undercut and dragged into a race to the bottom.

The [Coalition] Government has actively encouraged a race to the bottom by weakening the UK’s enforcement regime and promoting a hire-and-fire culture: doubling the qualification period for unfair dismissal, introducing fees for employment tribunals, and setting up a controversial scheme whereby employees trade their employment rights in return for a share in the company.

[Labour’s new industrial strategy] is about giving employers the tools they need to raise standards, and also protect them from being undercut, by raising the minimum wage, ending the abuse of zero-hours contracts, and making it illegal to use agency workers to undercut wages and conditions.

Bafflingly, there’s no further mention of – let alone any pledge to reverse – that doubling of the unfair dismissal qualifying period. Nor is there any mention of Labour’s previous pledge to reform the tribunal fees that have done so much damage to the ‘enforcement regime’. Given that employer lobby groups such as the CBI and FSB have openly called for the hefty fees to be substantially lowered, this is an astonishing omission from what is clearly intended to be a business-friendly document.

Indeed, once you cut through the rather repetitive references to ‘the race to the bottom’ and ‘raising our ambitions for the domestically-traded sectors’, there are precious few commitments to policy reform that might actually help achieve the plan’s lofty goals. Apart from reiterating both welcome plans to “encourage more employers to pay a living wage” and the disappointingly modest pledge to “increase the minimum wage to £8 an hour before 2020”, the 80-page document sets out just three broad policy pledges specific to “reducing the pressures employers face to get dragged into a race to the bottom”:

1. Banning the abuse of zero-hours contracts: giving workers on zero-hours contracts new legal rights to be protected from employers forcing them to be available at all hours, insisting they cannot work for anyone else, or cancelling shifts at short notice without compensation, and giving workers on zero-hours contracts who are actually working regular hours week-in week-out a right to a contract with fixed minimum hours. We will also introduce a new Acas Code of Practice [on zero-hours contracts].

This is all very well, but – as I’ve previously noted elsewhere and the document itself recognises just two paragraphs later, in relation to enforcement of the minimum wage – there is no point having rules if they are not enforced. And, presumably, the only way to enforce these proposed new rules would be for individual workers to pursue a tribunal claim against their abusive employer. Which very few workers would be likely to do, even without the fees of up to £1,200 on which the document is so surprisingly silent. So, new Labour ministers could huff and puff all they like, but their shiny new rules wouldn’t blow many rogue employers down.

2. Tackling undercutting by rogue employment agencies: taking action to crack down on rogue agencies that exploit workers illegally for profit – for example through a licensing system that ensures agencies are complying with basic standards or stopped from operating; extending the Gangmasters Licensing Authority approach to cover sectors where there is evidence of high levels of migrant labour and exploitative working practices; and closing the loophole in the Agency Workers Directive that allows agency workers to be used to undercut employees.

This is more encouraging, even if it is somewhat ill-defined. However, both the employer lobby groups and past Labour ministers have been strongly against extending the GLA’s licensing regime to other sectors – with good reason. And, since 2010, Coalition ministers have reduced the BIS employment agency standards inspectorate to a rump of just three staff. So it’s not at all clear who Ed Miliband, Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna think would do all the cracking down. In short, there’s a lot of work yet to be done on this policy pledge if it’s to become more than a vague sop to the TUC, which has stuck rigidly to its call to extend the GLA regime.

3. Ensuring proper enforcement of the rules: there is no point in having rules if they are not enforced. Under this Government, the number of inspections into whether the National Minimum Wage was being paid has more than halved and there have been just two prosecutions since 2010. There is widespread agreement that better enforcement would support employers that play by the rules. Labour will improve this by: increasing the fines for breaching the minimum wage to £50,000; extending the remit of the HMRC minimum wage unit to cover holiday pay; giving councils a role in enforcement; and trebling the fines for knowingly employing illegal migrants.

The last of this third set of policy actions is little more than dog whistle politics, but there’s a good case for capitalising on the local, front-line knowledge of councils in order to improve enforcement of the NMW. And extending the HMRC unit’s remit to cover holiday pay is something I suggested in 2011, as an obvious first step in incrementally fusing the HMRC unit and the GLA into a genuine fair employment agency; more recently, it was a recommendation of the June 2014 report on low pay by Alan Buckle.

But Labour are kidding themselves – and the voting public – if they think that increasing the maximum penalty for breaching the NMW to £50,000 will have more than a marginal impact. For the penalty is set at 100 per cent of the total arrears owed, and in all but a handful of cases that sum is relatively small, and certainly well below £50,000. For example, among the 162 NMW-flouting firms named and shamed by BIS to date, including the tranche of 70 named today, the total arrears owed – and so the penalty imposed – was less than £10,000 in 154 cases, and exceeded the current maximum of £20,000 in just four cases. And, as they each involved a number of workers, those four cases would have been more than adequately covered by the Government’s proposed new maximum penalty of £20,000 per underpaid worker, set out in the Small Business, Enterprise & Employment Bill and almost certain to become law before Parliament is dissolved on 30 March.

Of course, Labour could increase the penalties by increasing the penalty rate from 100 per cent of the arrears owed to, say, 200 per cent. But that’s quite different to what Labour are saying they would do, and might be quite hard to justify when, in the vast majority of cases, the total sum owed in underpayments is relatively small, and the employer is a (very) small business. Among the 162 firms named and shamed by BIS, the average underpayment per worker was just £306.11, and no fewer than 35 of the 162 firms are hairdressers or beauty salons. We’re (mostly) not talking big corporates here.

All in all, Labour’s ‘better economic plan’ is depressingly short on credible, fully-formed (and costed) policy ideas for halting the race to the bottom in pay and working conditions. The good news is that I’m available to help sort that out, and my daily rate is a lot less than Jack Straw’s.

Waiting for your call, Chuka.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do BIS & HMRC care about the care sector?

There was much ministerial self-satisfaction in evidence yesterday, as BIS named & shamed a further 37 employers for breaches of the national minimum wage. This brings the total number of firms named since the scheme was rebooted in October 2013 to a less than impressive 92. Or just 90, if you allow for BIS wrongly naming, so not actually shaming, two of the 25 firms it named in June last year.

“Paying less than the minimum wage is illegal, immoral and completely unacceptable,” said BIS minister Jo Swinson. “If employers break this law they need to know that we will take tough action by naming, shaming and fining them as well as helping workers recover the hundreds of thousands of pounds in pay owed to them.”

Or the average of £4.82 in pay owed to them, in the case of the 540 workers to whom retailer H&M failed to pay a total of some £2,600. It was this case that – no doubt to the delight of press officers at BIS and the chagrin of those at H&M – most national media chose to focus on, presumably because H&M were unlucky enough to be the first (and so far only) household-name retailer to be shamed by BIS. Never has so little been owed to so many by “time-logging errors in some stores”.

Of course, household-name corporations like H&M – which, according to the Independent, made profits of “more than £600m in the last quarter alone” – could avoid the risk of such adverse publicity by paying their staff a living wage, rather than just the legal minimum.

However, it was another of the 37 shamed employers that caught my eye. Ultimate Care UK Ltd, in Ipswich, became the first of Britain’s 35,000 adult social care employers (i.e. both residential and domiciliary care providers) to be named & shamed by BIS, for failing to pay a total of £613.79 to seven workers. With just 15 care staff, and having won a National Home Care Employer of the Year (< 250 employees) award in 2011, Ultimate Care are probably feeling as aggrieved as the corporate fat cats at H&M at being shamed by BIS when there are clearly a great many bigger fish in Britain’s pool of minimum wage rogues.

Indeed, just two days before BIS dumped on Ultimate Care, Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrat colleague Paul Burstow – a former health minister (2010-12), and chair of a Commission on Home Care – used a Westminster Hall debate to highlight a number of challenges in the adult social care sector, including “the low pay, low status culture that pervades the sector.” Noting that the National Audit Office estimated in early 2014 that as many as 220,000 (15 per cent) of the sector’s 1.5 million workers are illegally paid below the minimum wage, and that “the problem is getting worse, not better”, Mr Burstow called for action to ensure that “those who are exploiting their workers” are “properly and vigorously pursued.”

Mr Burstow is far from alone in contrasting the evidence of systemic flouting of the minimum wage in the sector, with the apparent lack of effective enforcement action against the employers in question. In March 2013, a number of MPs – including Simon Hughes, Liz Kendall, and Alison McGovern – expressed concern about the exploitation of their constituents during a Westminster Hall debate initiated by Labour MP Andrew Smith. And in August that year, a report by the Resolution Foundation think tank highlighted the “national scandal” of care workers being illegally paid as little as £5 per hour:

While headline pay rates for care workers who visit clients at home are set at or above the national minimum wage of £6.19 an hour, in practice those workers often lose at least £1 an hour because they are not paid separately for the time spent travelling between appointments and because providing decent care often takes longer than the time allocated by the employer for each visit. This would mean that over the course of a year, a care worker who spent an average of 35 hours a week at work for 48 weeks would lose out on more than £1600.

In November 2013, an evaluation by HMRC of its enforcement work in the social care sector in 2011/12 and 2012/13, including both complaints made via the Pay & Work Rights Helpline and targeted enforcement against 40 residential care providers and 40 domiciliary providers, concluded that inspectors had “identified higher and increasing levels of non-compliance with minimum wage legislation than has been previously found in the sector.” HMRC noted:

[We] are concerned that many employers had failed to keep sufficient records of working time to demonstrate that workers are being paid at least the national minimum wage, particularly given that non-payment of travelling time for workers in domiciliary care was commonplace [sic].

In May 2014, the Kingsmill Review – a report into working conditions in the sector by Baroness Denise Kingsmill, commissioned by Labour leader Ed Miliband – concluded that “the low status of care work and poor treatment of workers has led to a vicious downward spiral, with widespread exploitation.” Two months later – in response to the March 2014 NAO report cited by Paul Burstow – the Public Accounts Committee of MPs said they were “astonished that up to 220,000 care workers earn less than the minimum wage and little has been done to rectify this.”

In November 2014, Andrew Smith initiated a second Westminster Hall debate, during which Labour MPs queued up to express their concern at the lack of government action on the issue. And, last month, launching a campaign and petition calling on ministers to “end the scandal of illegally paid care workers”, the trade union Unison noted that:

In 2011 and 2013, HMRC investigated the care sector and found that only half of care providers were paying [at least] the minimum wage. Thanks to those investigations, several companies were forced to pay care workers the money that they were owed.

Now, because of the ongoing cuts to care budgets and a lack of follow-up action from HMRC, the situation has become worse. This is in part because most care workers are on zero-hours or temporary agency contracts, with the employers cutting out paid time wherever they can. A full day on the job can translate into only a handful of paid hours.

In short, pretty much everyone who has considered the issue has concluded that exploitation, including non-compliance with the minimum wage, is rife in the social care sector. So why were investigations completed in relation to just 70 residential care homes in the four-year period 1 April 2010 to 31 March 2014? Why has the overall number of investigations by HMRC (i.e. not just the care sector) fallen in each of the past three years, from 1,140 in 2010-11, to 680 in 2013-14? And why does the Government say, in its recent evidence to the Low Pay Commission, that “non-compliance as a result of gross exploitation is very low”? Something’s not right here.

In response to Paul Burstow’s Westminster Hall debate, BIS minister Jo Swinson said:

Proactive investigations happen. There was a particular period of targeted enforcement in the care sector, from 2011 to 2013. We recognise that the issue is important and are returning to the care sector for proactive work. That process is now under way, so more will happen. Currently, 94 employers in the care sector are being investigated for national minimum wage issues, and when those investigation conclude, we will see whether they have broken the law. If so, there are tough penalties, including naming and shaming, and we have taken steps to increase the resources available to HMRC for that vital work.

Presumably, one of those 94 care sector firms is the former employer of Debra Claridge, who made a complaint to HMRC about prolonged payment below the minimum wage (due to non-payment for travel time between appointments) as long ago as November 2012, but – astonishingly – has still not had her case resolved.

Ms Swinson has (laudably) made a habit of including the phone number of the Pay & Work Rights Helpline in her contributions to House of Commons debates and replies to written parliamentary questions, but it makes a mockery of the minimum wage enforcement system for those who follow the Minister’s advice and call the Helpline – as Mrs Claridge did – to then wait two years or more for HMRC to conclude its investigation and recover the arrears owed (or close the case and explain why).

All in all, there is a clear need for a step-change in enforcement of the minimum wage, not least to tackle the “commonplace” but unlawful practice in the domiciliary care sector of not counting travel from one work assignment to another as working time. In a letter to Jo Swinson co-signed by 36 other MPs, Andrew Smith has now requested an urgent meeting to “discuss how BIS, in tandem with HMRC, the Department of Health, and the Department for Communities and Local Government, can ensure that care providers operate within the law and that all care workers are legally paid.”

The £3 million increase in HMRC’s enforcement budget for 2015-16 that BIS announced alongside the naming & shaming of H&M, Ultimate Care and 35 others – an increase not to be sniffed at in these days of austerity and cuts – is clearly welcome, and will no doubt make a difference. But even £12.2 million per year is a piddling sum, given the (growing) size and nature of the challenge. The next government is going to have to do a lot more than name and shame a single social care employer.

 

 

 

 

The holes at the heart of Ed Miliband’s #ukemplaw speech

Yesterday, Labour leader Ed Miliband responded to recent media and internal criticism of his leadership by giving his #ukemplaw speech. This didn’t go quite so far as resolving the question of whether voluntary overtime should be included in holiday pay, but it did include a robust denunciation of inequality and the casualisation of so much of the UK’s labour force. There were repeated mentions of zero-hours contracts, low pay, and insecure work, and more than one shout-out for the Living Wage.

All fine and dandy, even if there wasn’t any new policy as such, and had the event concluded at the end of Miliband’s speech I would most likely have left Senate House feeling somewhat encouraged. But the speech was followed by a Q&A, and my positive mindset was inadvertently shattered when a Labour activist in the audience – picking up on her leader’s condemnation of zero-hours contracts and citing her own bitter experience – gamely urged Miliband to legislate for an outright ban.

Starting his response with a swipe at the Coalition’s plan to simply ban exclusivity clauses, which he (rightly) noted will do nothing to tackle the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts, Miliband went on to re-iterate Labour’s own plan to pass legislation giving zero-hours workers who are in fact working “regular hours” a legal right to demand a regular contract. “It is essential we do this”, said Miliband, “as the problem is affecting so many people.”

And then Miliband was off to the next question, without explaining how or why the “bad businesses” that cause so much misery to “so many people” will change their exploitative practices just because politicians in Westminster have passed yet more new employment law. Will tens of thousands of vulnerable, zero-hours workers suddenly discover the courage (and resources) to risk almost certain dismissal (or just a reduction in their hours to, well, zero) by issuing a tribunal claim against their exploitative employer for refusing to give them a regular contract?

No, they won’t. Which is why, if Miliband and his party are serious about tackling the ever greater casualisation of the labour market, and the associated zero-hours contracts, chronic low pay and insecure work, they have to start thinking about doing more than simply pass more laws creating more rights. For, as the October 2014 report of Labour’s own National Policy Forum acknowledges, “Employment rights have to be enforceable to mean anything.”

And what plans does Labour have to make employment rights – existing and new – more enforceable?

Well, somewhat belatedly, the party has started making the right sort of noises on tribunal fees, which have slashed the number of cases by 65% and left the average private sector employer facing a claim just once every 83 years. However, it’s pledge to replace the fees regime with one in which “affordability will not be a barrier to workplace justice” remains more a clumsy slogan than a credible policy solution to the not insignificant problem that outright abolition now comes with a price tag of some £40m in lost fee income (£4m) and increased operational costs (£35m).

However, as already noted, understandable fear of victimisation or summary dismissal means that, high fees, low fees or no fees, many abused workers will not even contemplate taking their employer on with a tribunal claim. And that means rogue employers can profit from exploitation with near impunity. It was for this reason that, in 1999, the then Labour government established the mechanism by which the national minimum wage is enforced, both in response to complaints and pro-actively, by a team of HMR inspectors. And similar reasoning lay behind the creation of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) in 2005.

The National Policy Forum report includes a pledge to extend the narrow remit of the GLA to other sectors such as “construction, hospitality and social care” – but the CBI, REC and other employer bodies will never swallow such an extension of licensing (and see below). And the report states that “alongside increased fines and a new role for local authorities in enforcement [of the minimum wage], HMRC’s remit on enforcement should be expanded to include related non-payment of holiday pay” – these being recommendations from the May 2014 report for the Party on low pay and the future of the minimum wage by businessman Alan Buckle. But the fines have already been substantially increased, and it is hard to see many cash-strapped (and in many cases near bankrupt) local authorities taking an active role in such (limited scope) enforcement.

So, if Miliband’s #ukemplaw speech is to mean anything, he and shadow ministers need to take a leaf out of Vince Cable’s book. Last month, at his party’s conference in Glasgow, Cable quietly announced that the Liberal Democrat manifesto for May 2015 will promise a new Workers’ Rights Agency that would “revamp efforts to enforce employment law and tackle the exploitation of workers” by combining the remits and work of “the minimum wage enforcement section of HMRC, the working time directive section at the Health & Safety Executive, the BIS Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, and the GLA.” According to Cable, this “joined-up enforcement approach” would “ensure the minority of unscrupulous employers who break the law do not get away with undercutting other employers who play by the rules.”

And, if it makes Miliband and colleagues feel better about lifting ideas from Cable, this wasn’t actually Cable’s idea – he simply lifted it from me. Over more than a decade at Citizens Advice, I repeatedly advocated a consolidation of the State enforcement bodies into a Fair Employment Agency, so as to shine a light into the murkiest corners of the labour market, provide better value to taxpayers, and secure a fairer competitive environment for business. And I’ve continued to do so in recent years. I really am that boring.

However, not long after I got home from Senate House, a tweet by shadow work & pensions secretary Rachel Reeves alerted me to another, equally depressing hole in Miliband’s purported determination to tackle the scourge of insecure and badly paid work. Reeves was tweeting a link to an interview she and shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna have given to the Financial Times, from which it is clear that, faced with protests from the CBI and others, Reeves and Umunna are now rowing back on Miliband’s eve of conference pledge to raise the minimum wage rate to at least £8.00 per hour from October 2019. And, later in the evening, on BBC Newsnight, Umunna confirmed that Labour would only “try to get the minimum wage to £8.00 per hour by 2020”.

So, while Miliband’s #ukemplaw speech has been rightly praised for its greatly improved oratory and highly commendable “focus on inequality and insecurity,” the content seems as sadly hole-ridden as ever.