From The Observer:
More than two million people in Britain are forced to endure ‘intolerably poor working lives’ and subjected to daily exploitation and abuse from employers, a new report has found.
Legal loopholes have resulted in employment practices becoming commonplace in the modern workplace that were once attacked as exploitative in the 19th century, according to the first report from the TUC’s Commission on Vulnerable Employment. It found problems were particularly acute among those who worked in care homes, cleaning, hotels and restaurants, hairdressing and beauty, construction and security.
‘While this commission expected to find poor treatment, its extent has stunned us all,’ said Brendan Barber, the TUC leader. ‘Worst of all, much of it took place within a legal framework that fails to prevent exploitation. Much exploitative treatment occurs because the law is not strong enough to prevent mistreatment, with employers using gaps in employment protection to treat staff badly.’
The report, ‘Hard Work, Hidden Lives’, is published tomorrow. It reveals, said Barber, a hidden Britain where those providing the services on which society and the economy rely are trapped in a cycle of poverty and injustice.
‘We spoke to agency employees who worked long days and nights for less pay than their permanent colleagues and who received no paid holiday or sickness leave,’ said Belinda Earl, chief executive of Jaeger, who sat on the commission. ‘We heard from construction workers who were injured at work but were not entitled to welfare protection.
‘There were workers who had spent 70-hour weeks on around £2 an hour who had no choice but to keep working when they were ill, as they could neither afford to lose a day’s pay nor risk the sack. I particularly remember the security guards who had worked for months but had never been paid and the chambermaids who had to be available to work from 8am, seven days a week, but who were not paid for the extra hours if rooms were vacated in late morning.
‘All the commissioners on this report were shocked by the stories we have heard, and we have evidence that shows they are far from exceptional.’
Paula, 53, a white British single mother of two, worked for a large cross-Channel ferry company as a steward for nine years. For the first eight years she worked through an employment agency, on low pay and with no security of tenure beyond the fortnightly spells she spent on the ship.
‘I was paid £4.10 an hour, which was raised to £5.10 when the minimum wage was introduced,’ she said. ‘There was no holiday or sick pay, maternity leave or pension provision. I worked alongside staff in the same job, whose pay, conditions and job security were much better than mine.’
Paula worked 14 days on the ship and had 14 days off. When she was on duty, she worked 12-hour shifts. When she was off, she was unpaid and unemployed. She survived from the wages earned in the previous two weeks, while hoping to be taken on again for another two weeks. ‘I was entitled to claim benefits for those 14-day unemployed spells, but I didn’t because it was so difficult to stop and start claims every two weeks.
‘I was so badly off that I was barely living and still worry how I will manage financially in old age because I didn’t manage to build up a pension for all those years.’
The commission is now calling for an end to such insecure employment conditions. ‘Loopholes in the laws that are meant to protect workers must be closed,’ said Fran Bennett, a senior research fellow at Oxford University, who sat on the commission.
Barber said that there must be an end to ‘replacing the hopelessness of the dole queue with the misery of dead-end lives, trapped in insecure, low-paid jobs’.