Discrimination, wage theft, unfair dismissals…UK companies must be held to account for their poor employment practices

May 4, 2023

Image of moving ambulance that is slightly blurry
Source: Matt Gush / Getty Images

The scale of employer non-compliance with labour laws has recently been highlighted in a report ‘Enforce for Good’ published by independent think tank, The Resolution Foundation. The report found that around a third of the lowest paid workers were not paid the minimum wage, one in five of workers faced discrimination in the workplace, and the number of injuries at work was likely far higher than reported.

The report also showed that UK enforcement agencies have not been as effective as their counterparts in other countries; describing them as highly fragmented, with spend per worker far lower than other countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development). It found that most people were unaware of the existence of the various government bodies responsible for regulation. When agencies did act, penalties were often too lenient to act as a deterrent with the result being that most workers were left to pursue cases with employers themselves.

Violation Tracker UK data adds further evidence to this report’s conclusions. The database brings together enforcement action from 52 different government agencies including: the National Minimum Wage Unit, Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, Health and Safety Executive, The Pensions Regulator and Employment Tribunal data.

Even with this breadth of coverage, major employers known to engage in questionable practises are not being sanctioned and thus are not showing up prominently in the data. For example, Amazon, reported in 2021 to have had almost 1000 ambulances called out to its warehouses since 2018, has faced no enforcement action from the Health and Safety Executive and has only lost two employment tribunals since 2017. A look at its US record paints an entirely different picture.

It is a similar story for delivery firms with a reputation of poor employment practices such as Uber and Deliveroo. Zero Hour contracts and classifying workers as self-employed act as further impediments in the assertion of employment rights.

In a system where workers are largely forced to take matters into their own hands, the poorest paid are the least likely to get justice. The Resolution Foundation report found that lack of knowledge of rights, limited legal resources, the long backlog of employment tribunal cases and the small reward of pursuing a case meant that most violations never make it to tribunal.

Clearly political will and adequate funding is needed to overcome these barriers to justice.

But alongside pressing government to act there are steps that activists can take to hold companies accountable for non-compliance.

Journalists, trade unionists and campaigners can use Violation Tracker UK to shine a light on instances where workers do win cases against their employers. For instance, postal workers have won 56 employment tribunal cases against Royal Mail plc since 2017 and BT workers have won 28 cases in victories that are no doubt related to the strength of the Communication Workers Union.

The same can be said for employment tribunal cases won against Capita, Mitie, Tesco, Asda and Marks and Spencer, and the unions that support workers in these workplaces.

This evidence of workers who have faced discrimination, breaches of contract and working time regulations, unlawful wage deduction and unfair dismissal paints a picture of a company’s employment practices that should be widely known and condemned.

By bringing enforcement actions from various agencies all together in one place, Violation Tracker UK enables journalists to scrutinise the recidivism of companies, some of which are repeatedly served notices by the Health and Safety Executive or Pensions Regulator.

The presumption that companies want to comply with regulations more often than not informs the work of enforcement agencies. But our data supports the view that a great number of large companies are engaged in systemic non-compliance. Tata Steel for instance, have been served 33 enforcement notices by the Health and Safety Executive since 2010. Insurance firm The Phoenix Group have a total of 41 pension plan violations in the same period.

Naming and shaming these recidivist companies is an action we can all take to raise awareness. This can bring to the public’s attention, not only the companies that repeatedly break UK regulatory law but also awareness of the work of regulatory agencies which may encourage more cases to be brought to their attention.

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