Bosses who abuse workers are escaping prosecution: U.K. labour watchdog

14 prosecutions since legal minimum wage was introduced 20 years ago

Bosses who abuse workers are escaping prosecution: U.K. labour watchdog
A man stands in front of a British flag outside the Houses of Parliament, ahead of a Brexit vote in London, Britain, on March 13. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Bosses who deny workers the legal minimum wage or commit other serious labour abuses are too often not being brought to justice, a British labour watchdog said on Wednesday.

The three government bodies leading the drive against modern slavery and labour abuse brought just seven prosecutions in 2017-18, said David Metcalf, the country's first director of labour market enforcement, in a new report.

In the 20 years since a legal minimum wage was introduced, just 14 prosecutions had been brought, he said, adding: "If used more frequently and with wider publicity, prosecutions could act as a much more powerful deterrent."

Britain's tax authority, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC), said non-payment of the minimum wage was normally a civil matter and prosecution was reserved for the most serious breaches.

"The government is determined that everyone who is entitled to the national minimum and living wage receives it," said a spokesman.

The other two groups scrutinized by the report — the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) and the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate (EAS) — were not immediately available for comment.

Five of the seven prosecutions were gangmaster offences under legislation introduced to protect temporary food and farm workersafter 23 migrant workers drowned while collecting shellfish at Morecambe Bay in north west England in 2004.

In the year to April 2018 there was also one prosecution for withholding wages and one case brought by HMRC for hampering investigations.

Metcalf compared the total with the more than 500 convictions secured each year by the health and safety enforcement body.

"Even allowing for greater funding, this is proportionally a much higher prosecution rate than the three enforcement bodies," he said.

His report also noted good practice, praising all three groups for awareness campaigns and efforts to develop joint working and information sharing.

Britain was seen as a global leader on tackling slavery after it passed the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 to crack down on traffickers, force businesses to check their supply chains for forced labour, and protect people at risk of being enslaved.

It is currently carrying out a review of the law amid criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, drive firms to stop forced labour or help victims.

At least 136,000 people are held as modern slaves in Britain, found to the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation, and many more are subject to labour abuses. 

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