New body must haul rogue umbrella companies into the light - Greg Wright

Thirty years ago, as a young journalist, I was horrified by the activities of rogue gangmasters who bullied their workers and cheated the taxman.

The new Single Enforcement Bod will be established through primary legislation when parliamentary time allows
The new Single Enforcement Bod will be established through primary legislation when parliamentary time allows

In recent years, there has been no sign that these corrupt individuals are being driven out of business.

The Government estimates there are thousands of modern slavery victims in Britain today. Many of them are being abused in plain sight.

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Car washes, construction and agriculture are the sectors in which labour exploitation is most often uncovered. In 2017, for example, 5,000 people were referred to British authorities as potential victims of slavery, an increase of a third from 2016.

The abusers play a calculating, brutal game. A study of the food and construction sectors in the UK found that gangmasters take on more workers than they need and deliberately avoid giving victims work. They provide them with accommodation and money for food, on the proviso it is paid back when they start earning.

Victims become “coerced consumers”, forced into spending wages on accommodation, food, transport and other goods provided by their employer.

Professor Andrew Crane, from the University of Bath, found that victims are being mercilessly forced into a cycle of debt and exploitation that is extremely difficult to break.

But there is hope that this cycle could finally be broken. The Government has announced that a new watchdog will be created to protect the rights of UK workers.

Responsibility for tackling modern slavery, enforcing the minimum wage and protecting agency workers, which is currently spread across three different bodies, will be brought under one roof, creating a new authority. The Government believes this body will ensure businesses that break the rules have nowhere to hide.

The Government claims this ‘one-stop shop’ approach will help improve enforcement through better co-ordination and pooling intelligence.

It will also enhance workers’ rights by providing a single, recognisable port of call for workers so they know their rights and can blow the whistle on bad behaviour.

The new body will continue the ‘Naming and Shaming scheme’, which calls out companies who fail to pay workers what they are owed and can hit rogue employers with fines of up to £20,000 per worker. This enforcement activity will be extended to cover other regulations protecting the pay of workers employed through agencies or by gangmasters in the agricultural sector.

However, Rebecca Seeley Harris, a former senior policy adviser to the Treasury, is alarmed by the prospect of any delay in setting up this body.

“It’s concerning that the SEB (new Single Enforcement Body) will be only established through primary legislation when parliamentary time allows,” she said. “This does not bode well for those people currently enslaved in gangmaster and unethical supply chains nor the contingent workforce caught up in the umbrella company scandal.”

Ms Seeley Harris believes there must be a focus on umbrella companies and non-compliance issues, “which is costing HMRC and the contingent workforce billions of pounds each year”.

A Government spokesman said: “Our published plans for a new single enforcement body clearly state that the new body will include umbrella companies in its remit, and will have new powers to tackle non-compliance.”

Ms Seeley Harris said the last year has brought to light the precarious nature of the labour supply chain. Many temporary umbrella workers have found themselves caught up in non-compliance issues.

The proposed body sounds like a giant stride in the right direction, but time is of the essence. If you’re a victim of modern slavery, you cannot wait for the next gap in Parliament’s cluttered schedule. You need to be liberated today.

The legislation required to set up the SEB must be placed before Parliament as a matter of urgency. Malpractice in the supply chain is denying the public of funds to provide services we will need more than ever as life slowly returns to normal. Companies which operate in the shadows must be hauled into the glare of unfiltered scrutiny.

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