Socialist Worker

Exposing hidden lives of vulnerable workers

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2102

Permanent workers in the refuse department at Salford council won equal rights for agency workers by striking last year (Pic: Colin Barker)

Permanent workers in the refuse department at Salford council won equal rights for agency workers by striking last year (Pic: Colin Barker)

Instant pay cuts, a minimum wage that exists on paper but not in pay packets, 70-hour weeks, unpaid overtime, no holidays, rotten conditions and instant dismissal are the daily grind for at least two million workers in Gordon Brown’s Britain.

That is the damning evidence contained in the TUC’s Commission on Vulnerable Employment report, Hard Work, Hidden Lives.

The report found that, “employment practices attacked as exploitative in the 19th century are still common today” and that the “poor treatment at work that we have found should not be tolerated”.

Workers are “trapped in a continual round of low paid and insecure work where mistreatment is the norm”.

The report says vulnerable workers suffer because they do not know their rights, lack an escape route from vulnerable jobs, cannot get their rights enforced – and often suffer when they try to have them enforced.

They also tend to fall through gaps in employment law, meaning they do not enjoy the minimum standards the government claims to support.

The report also reveals OECD research showing that Britain has less employment protection than any other advanced economy apart from the US.

The consequence is that the number of poor children living in working households is 1.4 million – exactly the same number as in 1997. Half of all children living in poverty have a parent in work.

Low pay is not just a problem for a mythical underclass or migrant workers – it is endemic across the country.

One in seven of all working households are extremely poor and one fifth of all workers – 5.3 million people – are paid less than £6.67 an hour (two thirds of the median), the worst low pay rate of any in Europe.

It works out at less than a £12,000 a year salary.

In some regions, the proportion of low paid is well over 25 percent, while in some areas – Wales, Birmingham, the West Midlands, the rural West Country – it is over 40 percent.

There is the case of a nurse who was effectively dismissed by her social care provider boss when she was unable to work nights because of her own parental responsibilities.

Or the case of an ex-soldier who only got work if he turned up at his agency’s office between 6am and 8am and waited, like a Victorian mill hand, to be picked for the council street-cleaning team. Complaining, of course, meant no work.

Both examples reflect the cost of local councils contracting out services.

The drive to privatise services has led to a huge rise in the use of agency workers. Furthermore, the government is pushing people into agency work as part of its welfare to work scheme.

The report points out that many of the jobs claimants are expected to take are from employment agency vacancies.

In January the proportion of new Jobcentre Plus vacancies accounted for by “other business activities” reached 58 percent – these are mostly employment agency vacancies.

Agency workers account for about a quarter of those the TUC identified as vulnerable. Even more are home workers, employed on a casual basis or by small businesses.

Women are more likely to face poverty pay and rights abuses. Some 62 percent of the two million vulnerable workers identified in this report are women.

The report makes a case for an amnesty for all migrant workers. It says, “Bringing all migrant workers into the mainstream would put a floor back into the employment market.”

The report points to better enforcement as a solution to the problem of vulnerable workers.


There is inadequate employment protection and what there is, is not enforced. The employment agency inspectorate had its staff doubled recently – but from just 15 to 30.

After cuts from New Labour there are few employment lawyers in law centres, and little guidance on where to go for help. English language classes have also been slashed.

An employer has a chance of being inspected over the minimum wage once every 330 years.

The £6.5 million devoted to advertising against benefit fraud is 57 times more than the £118,000 allocated to tell people about the national

minimum wage. Spending on advertising the minimum wage amounts to a sixth of that spent on a government campaign urging people to use tissues when they sneeze.

Or 38 times less than the amount spent to convince business to invest in the north east of England.

At the heart of this scandal lies the imbalance of power between worker and boss and the commitment of the Labour government to increase that imbalance.

The report, while having somewhat unnecessary arguments about how fair employment would benefit the bosses in the end, does point to the recent campaigning some unions have been involved in – with migrant workers organised by the GMB, cleaners by Unite and agency workers by the PCS.

All show the opportunities to organise vulnerable workers to fight back.

The commission’s report is available at »

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