Trades Union Congress launches commission to monitor vulnerable workers

In May 2007, the Trades Union Congress launched a new commission whose aim is to investigate the problems being faced by vulnerable workers in the United Kingdom. The commission includes a number of senior business figures along with trade union leaders. In particular, the commission aims to develop proposals for improving statutory protection against workplace exploitation.

On 31 May 2007, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) established the Commission on Vulnerable Employment (CoVE) to investigate the problems being faced by vulnerable workers. CoVE will investigate the extent of workplace exploitation and consider improvements to the legal framework and enforcement regime, aimed at assisting the most marginalised members of the UK’s workforce. Over the next year, 16 commissioners from business, academia, trade unions and civil society organisations will gather evidence on this theme. A final report outlining CoVE’s recommendations will be issued in 2008.

Background

In 2006, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) – now renamed the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) – published a paper outlining the government’s employment relations programme (UK0605019I). Among the key themes of this paper was the issue of protecting vulnerable workers. In response, the TUC has established CoVE to look independently at some of the issues involved.

The TUC believes that the commission’s establishment is necessary, as ‘unsafe, low-paid, insecure work is causing misery for millions of workers in the UK’. Launching the new commission, its Chair, TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber, outlined:

Most people will have the odd grumble about their job, but are treated fairly most of the time. But some workers still experience rank exploitation that Charles Dickens would recognise. Most of the time their experience is hidden, but we have had a recent rash of shocking exposures of poor treatment. The job of our new commission is to shine a light on Britain’s hidden exploited workers, and work out what government, employers and unions should be doing to protect them.

Identifying vulnerable workers

To coincide with CoVE’s launch, the TUC has produced a briefing (318Kb PDF) in which it argues that as many as one in five of the workforce may be considered ‘vulnerable workers’. Current employment legislation means that some groups of workers are not afforded the same employment rights as other workers. Therefore, while certain workers may be deemed as vulnerable, their employers are not necessarily operating unlawfully.

Vulnerable workers are more likely to come from the following occupational groups:

  • temporary agency workers;
  • other ‘atypical’ workers such as casual workers and freelancers;
  • young workers;
  • industrial home workers;
  • unpaid family workers;
  • recent UK migrants;
  • informal workers.

Areas under scrutiny

CoVE will conduct an investigation into why vulnerable employment exists. Its main focus will be on the following aspects, namely the:

  • nature of current employment legislation and its enforcement;
  • immigration and welfare benefits systems;
  • role of employers in upholding employment protection;
  • role of trade unions and civil society groups in supporting vulnerable workers.

In particular, CoVE intends to address the following key questions:

  • what constitutes vulnerable employment? CoVE favours a wider definition than that given by BERR – one which encapsulates the lived experience of work and the power relations between employer and employee;
  • is vulnerable employment on the increase? CoVE notes the limitations of survey data, and aims to develop better ways of recording vulnerable employment;
  • what allows vulnerable employment to exist?;
  • what problems are caused by vulnerable employment?

Commission timetable

A total of five full commission meetings are due to be held between now and early 2008. At these meetings, the commissioners will question witnesses, receive reports and deliberate over their recommendations. A public consultation and a range of commissioned research reports will provide further evidence. In addition, evidence will also be collected from four ‘field trips’, which will be held in the Northwest, in London and the Southeast, in Wales and in the Southwest. These will provide the commissioners with a more hands-on understanding of vulnerable employment and the problems it causes. The field trips will involve discussions with representatives from trade unions and civil society groups, in addition to government agency staff responsible for enforcing employment legislation, as well as the vulnerable workers themselves.

Government initiatives

In June 2007, BERR launched two pilot schemes – one in London and one in Birmingham – which aim to identify practical ways of improving the advice and support available to vulnerable workers and their employers at local level. The pilot schemes will focus on the cleaning and building services sector and on the hotels and restaurants sector, respectively. The government has also set up a Vulnerable Worker Enforcement Forum, involving representatives from business groups, trade unions, advice bodies and government agencies. The forum aims to consider ways of tackling abuses more effectively.

Duncan Adam, IRRU, University of Warwick

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