The government has confirmed it will launch a single enforcement body to protect workers’ rights and clamp down on unscrupulous employment practices.
The new watchdog, yet to be named, will be responsible for tackling modern slavery, enforcing the payment of the national minimum wage and protecting the rights of agency workers.
Currently, these activities are carried out by three separate bodies: the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate and HM Revenue & Customs’ national minimum wage enforcement team.
It will also be able to ensure that workers get the holiday pay and sick pay they are entitled to, without having to go through an employment tribunal.
Business minister Paul Scully said: “This government has been absolutely clear that we will do whatever we can to protect and enhance workers’ rights.
“The vast majority of businesses want to do right by their staff, but there are a minority who seem to think the law doesn’t apply to them. Exploitative practices like modern slavery have no place in society.
“This new workers’ watchdog will help us crack down on any abuses of workers’ rights and take action against companies that turn a blind eye to abuses in their supply chains, while providing a one-stop shop for employees and businesses wanting to understand their rights and obligations.”
The concept of a single enforcement body for workers’ rights was first mooted in the Taylor Review in 2017. The government then indicated that it would take forward the recommendation in its Good Work Plan, and a consultation ran in 2019.
In its response consultation’s outcome, the government said there had been some notable developments since the consultation closed – namely a shift in the way enforcement bodies have had to respond to new ways of working and emerging risks during the pandemic.
“A new single enforcement body will make us even better placed to deal with changes in the labour market, through greater flexibility in how to deploy resource and a more intelligence led approach,” it said.
“This was particularly highlighted by reports of serious non-compliance in the textiles industry in Leicester. A multi-agency taskforce led by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) has been facilitating joint working and intelligence sharing. There is much we are
already learning from this work as we develop plans for the new single enforcement body.”
The new body will also:
- continue “naming and shaming” organisations that fail to pay staff the wages they are owed, and fine them up to £20,000 per worker
- enforce regulations that protect the pay of workers employed through agencies or by gangmasters in the agricultural sector
- provide guidance on best practice, complementing the work already carried out by existing authorities such as Acas
- build strong links with community and worker groups to spread awareness engage with at-risk groups, including the low-paid and those in sectors like construction and agriculture that could be at higher risk of abuse.
The government will also explore measures to stamp out abuse in the garment sector specifically. Options being examined include creating a Garment Trade Adjudicator to investigate supply chains, or extending the licensing scheme that currently covers employers in the agricultural sector.
Simon Stephen, legal director at law firm Gowling WLG, said the announcement should act as a warning to organisations engaged in exploitative working practices that the government “is aiming to give itself more tools to hold them to account”.
“Although it’s not clear when the new body will be set up, its goal is to level the playing field for responsible employers who already comply with their obligations,” he said.
“Whilst we’ll have to wait to see what the real world impact is, it is a clear message that working practices should be very much at the heart of an organisation’s planning and governance – the S and G in ESG if you like – and there are growing negative consequences for employers who ignore it.”
Jonathan Exten-Wright, employment partner at DLA Piper, said: “The government has come good on its commitment to look again at the enforcement regime to prevent workplace abuses. By combining regulators they aim to prevent exploitation of the most vulnerable, and this will no doubt be a continuing story of increased action. Sectors such as fashion can expect increased scrutiny.”
The Department for Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy said the body will be established through primary legislation “when parliamentary time allows”.