A “powerful new watchdog” is to be created to tackle abuse by unscrupulous employers and name and shame big brands that turn a blind eye to exploitation of workers by their suppliers, the government has said.
However, the Labour party and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) criticised the “heavy on spin but light on action” proposals, saying the body would do little to change the insecure working conditions faced by many and highlighting that there was no timetable for its introduction.
The proposed watchdog would enforce the minimum wage, protect vulnerable workers’ holiday and sick pay entitlements, be responsible for tackling modern slavery, and name and fine companies which fail to pay workers what they are owed.
The body would bring together three existing agencies into one enforcement body: the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate and HMRC’s National Minimum Wage Enforcement.
However, the government admitted the creation of the new body would require primary legislation, putting it at the mercy of the parliamentary timetable, which suggests it would be unlikely to be up and running in the near future.
There was widespread shock last year over revelations of dangerous and exploitative workplace conditions in factories in Leicester, where staff were allegedly paid as little as £3 an hour and reportedly forced to work making garments for national brands, despite having Covid.
The government said it would “explore further measures” to target abuses in the garment sector specifically, including the creation of a Garment Trade Adjudicator to investigate company supply chains. It would also consider extending the licensing system for businesses that supply agricultural workers.
The announcement of the new watchdog comes just weeks after a long-promised employment bill – supposedly designed to allay fears about a dilution of worker’s rights following Brexit – was omitted from the government’s Queen’s speech legislative agenda.
The business minister, Paul Scully, said: “The UK has a strong record when it comes to protecting and strengthening workers’ rights, and we want to reinforce that with a watchdog that has teeth. Bringing these different powers together will ensure the regulator can root out abuse wherever it appears.
“We want this new body to act as a beacon for workers – somewhere they know they can go to blow the whistle on bad employers and employment practices. As we move to this new model, we will be talking directly to community groups and workers – particularly those who are vulnerable – to ensure they know who to call, and have trust that action will be taken where it needs to be.”
The TUC’s general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect at work. But years of underinvestment have left our enforcement system in crisis and millions of workers vulnerable to exploitation.
“Today’s announcement is heavy on spin, but light on action. Rather than clamping down on bad bosses now, the government is today making an announcement with no plan to legislate to make it happen – and no new funding either.”
The TUC called for a reversal of 50% cuts to the Health and Safety Executive over the past decade, and an increase in workplace inspections. No employer had been prosecuted by the HSE during the pandemic, it said.