Matthew Taylor: Covid-19 increases temptation of non-compliance

Matthew Taylor, former interim director of labour market enforcement. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

The coronavirus pandemic will make more people in urgent need of work and more employers desperate to stay in business, according to Matthew Taylor, interim director of labour market enforcement.

Speaking at the launch of the UK Labour Market Enforcement Annual Report, Taylor said the economic environment created by Covid-19 will lead to the temptation of non-compliance being greater, while the resistance of individuals at risk of being exploited may be further reduced. He said this was “something which threatens to undermine the competitiveness of those who stick by the rules”.

Taylor, author of the 2017 government-commissioned Good Work Plan, was appointed interim director of LME last August when the then business secretary announced plans for a new single enforcement body (SEB) with powers to enforce the national minimum wage and holiday entitlement.

“The crisis and its aftermath have surfaced new dangers and vulnerabilities, deepened public understanding and concern, and started to shine light on a set of new policy and operational challenges,” said Taylor.

“Fortunately, the government has the opportunity to respond to these factors quickly through the Employment Bill – which will, I hope, address some of the issues still outstanding from my Good Work report of 2017 –  and lead to the creation of a single enforcement body.”

The government has yet to publish the outcome of the consultation on the single enforcement that would see the coming together of Employment Agency Standards (EAS), the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) and HM Revenue and Customs’ National Minimum Wage (HMRC-NMW) enforcement team. But, as it was a 2019 manifesto pledge, Taylor expects the move to go ahead.

“My office made a substantive response to that consultation last year, and the recent crisis has only strengthened my views further. I believe there is now a strong case to re-examine the scope for the SEB being much more ambitious than simply folding the EAS, GLAA and HMRC-NMW into one body.”

He explained that a broader, better-funded SEB would benefit from enhanced intelligence, building on links within HMRC, the National Crime Agency and the police; the creation of a joined-up, local compliance and enforcement service staffed by field officers; and a clearer route for complaints and support for workers, developing a brand and reputation for the organisation that engenders trust.

He added that the SEB would have the scale to engage employers and sectors in a joined-up way to develop collaborative and targeted approaches.

“I believe we also need to look again at the role and management of an employment tribunal system which, despite the hard work of those within it, is under increasing strain,” said Taylor.

He also shared his concerns for what may be happening to workers in high-risk sectors such as hand car washes and nail bars. “With these businesses closed down there is a blind spot about what is happening to vulnerable workers in these sectors. Have they moved to other industries and employers? Is there an opportunity to reach them in more compliant sectors or are they being driven into greater exploitation, further out of the reach of the support from compliance and enforcement efforts?”

Taylor, who is also chief executive of the RSA, acknowledged the public’s concern about poor working conditions and exploitation of key workers saying it had brought longstanding issues to the fore. “This is particularly true for care workers. My annual strategy for this year (2020/21) – delivered to government in March but hopefully soon to be published – highlights the many problems affecting the social care workforce, ranging from non-payment of the minimum wage to risks of severe labour exploitation.

“Public awareness around delivery drivers and food couriers has also become more acute, with many of the couriers who have come to our front doors lacking protections and entitlements because they are questionably designated as self-employed.”

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