No Viable Alternatives: Social (in)security and risk of labour exploitation during COVID-19

What you need to know:

  • FLEX's research looked at workplace issues migrants in low-paid and insecure work faced during the pandemic and whether they were able to access social security measures. Findings show considerable levels of labour abuse and barriers to accessing support, leading to risk of labour exploitation.
  • Findings are based on survey responses from 337 Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain and United Voices of the World members, as well as interviews and focus groups.
  • Recommendations fall under addressing low-pay and insecurity at work; ensuring key social security provisions provide sufficient protections beyond the pandemic; and ensuring that government policy on immigration does not bar people in need from accessing vital support.

This report from Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), funded by Trust for London, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Unbound, looks at the experiences of migrant workers in low-paid and insecure work during the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on barriers to accessing employment rights and social protections, and the associated risks of labour abuse and exploitation.

It is the result of a partnership between FLEX, the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW), two grassroots trade unions organising and supporting workers in low-paid and insecure sectors of the economy.

It is based on survey responses from 337 IWGB and UVW members, as well as interviews and focus groups with workers, trade union caseworkers, and a broad range of civil society organisations supporting people experiencing or at risk of labour exploitation.

The report focuses specifically on migrant workers in low-paid and insecure work because of the multiple, layered vulnerabilities this group faces due to their position in the labour market and restrictions related to their immigration status, such as having limited access to social security. Although these vulnerabilities existed before COVID-19, they have been made far more visible by the pandemic. The report therefore uses the COVID-19 pandemic as a case study to examine how vulnerabilities related to employment, immigration and social security policy intersect to restrict people’s options, compelling them into coercive working relationships and eroding their ability to negotiate decent work.

Key findings

The research looked at workplace issues migrants in low-paid and insecure work faced during the pandemic and whether they were able to access social security measures. The findings show considerable levels of labour abuse and barriers to accessing support, leading to risk of labour exploitation.

Key employment issues experienced by low-paid and insecure workers during the pandemic
  • Not being paid wages owed. The single largest issue reported by survey respondents was not being paid the full or correct wages, which 44% of participants* had experienced at least once since March 2020.
  • Physical and mental health risks. This included being exposed to Covid-19 through work (17%), being asked to work in ways that felt dangerous, including with poor social distancing or without Personal Protective Equipment (12%), and being forced to work despite being ill (8%). Of the survey respondents, 23% reported deteriorated mental health and wellbeing because of the pandemic.
  • Redundancies and loss of work. A significant proportion of research participants were made redundant (33%), had to accept new terms of employment to retain their job (24%), or were simply not given any work (11%), which intensified existing fears and feelings of insecurity, and further reduced workers’ bargaining power.
  • Excessive workload and sexual harassment.Approximately one sixth (16%) of our survey respondents saw their workloads increase during the pandemic, the majority of whom (63%) were not paid for this additional work. Our data shows that employers exploited this power imbalance, using people’s fear of losing employment to impose additional work as well as to sexually harass them.
Access to key social security measures during the pandemic
  • Issues with the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (furlough). There was no incentive for employers to furlough workers they could simply stop giving work to, such as agency, zero-hours, and casual workers. Once employers had to start paying for national insurance and pension contributions, and part of furlough pay, this lack of incentive turned into a disincentive, leading to mass redundancies. Employers had full discretion over who to furlough, with no role for workers or their representatives to challenge employers’ decisions. As furlough only replaced 80% of people’s wages, many saw their income drop by 20%, leading to pay well below the minimum wage.
  • Issues with Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). At £96.35 per week, SSP is one of the least generous sick pay regimes in Europe, replacing only a fraction of people’s income. As a result, many are unable to afford to stop working when they are ill or if they need to self-isolate. People are only entitled to SSP if they meet the lower earnings limit of £120 per week per employer; this excludes many on low pay working part-time, on variable hours, or for multiple employers. SSP is also currently not enforced by any of the UK’s labour market enforcement agencies.
  • Issues with Universal Credit. The Universal Credit application system is so complex that many are unable to access it without support from already over-burdened civil society organisations. The five-week wait for payment leaves those already struggling at risk of destitution and many workers in low-paid and insecure workers sublet or live in houses of multiple occupancy, making it difficult to provide evidence for housing support. Universal Credit payments are overall too low to provide effective resilience to exploitation.
  • Additional barriers to accessing welfare benefits. These include language barriers, lack of knowledge of support available or how to access it, not feeling entitled to support, lacking confidence to seek out support and lack of trust in state systems. Some migrants are completely barred from accessing social security because of immigration restrictions, most notably migrants with no recourse to public funds.

Key recommendations

To address low-pay and insecurity at work
  1. Determine National Minimum Wage/National Living Wage rates based on what workers and their families need to meet the cost of living, as modelled by the Living Wage Foundation.
  2. Strengthen the enforcement of existing labour standards, focusing on sectors with low-pay and high rates of insecure work.
  3. Address the insecurity created by zero-hours contracts.
  4. Make sure employers cannot dismiss workers without a just cause or without following proper procedure.
  5. Enable better trade union access to workplaces and introduce stronger rights to establish collective bargaining so that unions can negotiate secure working conditions, inform workers about their rights and entitlements, and support them to access those rights in practice.
To ensure key social security provisions provide sufficient protections beyond the pandemic
  1. Reform Statutory Sick Pay so that people can afford to take time off when they are ill.
  2. Reform Universal Credit so it effectively protects against poverty and destitution, enabling people to negotiate decent work and leave exploitative jobs in the knowledge that they have a safety net to fall back on.
  3. The government should conduct and publish a review of the furlough scheme and its implementation, considering its effectiveness for workers in low-paid and insecure work. Lessons from this review should inform any similar future schemes so they are designed to also support the most vulnerable groups of workers.
To ensure that government policy on immigration does not bar people in need from accessing vital support
  1. Repeal the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) policy, which has been shown to create and exacerbate extreme poverty and inequality.
  2. Provide people with Pre-Settled Status with the same access to welfare support as those with Settled Status.
  3. Ensure support is available for people to regularise their immigration status and access the social security support they are entitled to.
  4. Introduce secure reporting so that people can report exploitative employers and exit exploitative situations regardless of their immigration status.

28 October 2021