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Short report

Download the report
You can download the short version of the Commission on Vulnerable Employment report, Hard Work, Hidden Lives” in pdf format.

Executive Summary

The Commission on Vulnerable Employment estimate that around two million workers in the UK find themselves in vulnerable employment – which we define as precarious work that places people at risk of continuing poverty and injustice resulting from an imbalance of power in the employer-worker relationship.

There are many and complex reasons for vulnerable work. Much exploitative treatment of vulnerable workers occurs because the law is not strong enough to prevent mistreatment, with employers using gaps in employment protection to treat staff badly. The result is extreme insecurity for workers who do not have contracts of employment, work through agencies, or who have reduced rights because of their immigration status.

But many employers of vulnerable workers do also break the law, exploiting the powerlessness of their workers and the lack of effective enforcement of employment rights. Enforcement agencies do not have enough resources to guarantee employment rights and do not work well together.

In certain low-paid sectors, including care, cleaning, hospitality, security and construction our evidence shows that some employers routinely break the law.

While there have been welcome improvements in employment protection in recent years, the persistence of vulnerable work means we now have a two-tier labour market in the UK. This is particularly troubling given that international experience, supported by OECD analysis, shows that economies can combine competitive success with proper protection for vulnerable workers.

Our full report (available online at sets out our analysis and proposals for how we believe trade unions, employers, civil society and government should act to challenge vulnerable employment. In this short report we highlight our key findings and recommendations.

Key recommendations

Improved awareness and advice

Vulnerable workers have little knowledge of their rights and find it hard to get advice. This is unsurprising as government does little to publicise employment rights while advice and legal agencies are under-resourced, creating employment rights ‘advice deserts’ in parts of the UK.

  • Immediate action needs to be taken to improve employment rights awareness. here should be a continuous national campaign, backed by government and involving civil society, employers, and trade unions, to increase awareness of employment rights across the workforce, but particularly among vulnerable workers.
  • Vulnerable workers should have access to advice. his requires more resources for agencies and other bodies working with vulnerable workers. Local authorities should have a statutory duty to fund employment rights advice services. In addition, the impact that legal aid reform has had on the availability of advice for vulnerable workers should be urgently reviewed. Better enforcement of employment rights Many employers and employment agencies making use of vulnerable workers regularly flout the law and get away with it. Employment tribunals (ETs) can be costly and intimidating places, especially for vulnerable workers. The agencies that enforce specific employment rights employ committed staff but are under-resourced, do not have sufficient powers and do not work together, although the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) has made an impressive start.
  • Better enforcement of employment rights should be led from the top. The Government should establish a new Fair Employment Commission to provide strategic leadership for co-ordinated employment rights enforcement and to advise on wider policy to challenge vulnerable employment.
  • When laws are broken, rights should be effectively enforced. Workers who do not receive their wages, who are not provided with paid holiday or sickness leave or are refused their legal entitlements to maternity or paternity pay should have recourse to a simple, effective and timely way to enforce their rights. All statutory rights that involve only questions of fact and monetary based claims should be enforced by a state agency, as well as by employment tribunals. Much closer working between enforcement agencies is also essential if vulnerable employment is to be tackled effectively.
  • Tighter regulation is needed of the sectors and businesses where risks are greatest. The GLA has demonstrated that it can effectively enforce standards in its sector and their approach could be applied to other sectors where vulnerable workers are exploited. A clear, nationally agreed set of standards should be established for employment businesses/agencies providing temporary labour, which needs to be closely monitored. The Government should be prepared to extend the GLA licensing regime – a proposal which responsible agencies back – to cover sectors characterised by vulnerable employment. The aim would be to ensure that an employer seriously exploiting workers and undercutting reputable companies would lose their licence to trade.

Better regulatory and legal protection for vulnerable workers

Many vulnerable workers suffer because they do not legally count as ‘employees’ with a contract of employment. Those considered simply as ‘workers’ or who have been forced into bogus self-employment not only have few rights, but lack any security, meaning that employers can sack them if they complain. Working through an agency can also create similar uncertainty and precariousness at work.

Immigration status is complex and can act to make workers more vulnerable by making them entirely dependent on their employers.

  • The unequal treatment of agency workers must end. There should be a legal guarantee of equal treatment between agency workers and directly employed staff undertaking the same work.
  • It is wrong that ‘workers’ and the bogus self-employed should be denied the legal protections enjoyed by ‘employees’ – employment rights in the UK are assigned using a complicated and outdated system that requires review. This urgent review should examine employment status rules in order to improve the rights and protections available to ‘workers’ (as opposed to ‘employees’), including recognition of the exploitation caused by bogus self-employment.
  • Many migrant workers are forced into vulnerable employment by immigration regulations. Across the immigration system regulations relating to low-paid migrant workers should be reviewed, with specific consideration given to areas where their impact leads to a higher risk of exploitation.

Improved union organisation of vulnerable workers

Trade unions have not organised the majority of vulnerable workers. In the formal economy around 25 per cent of those in vulnerable employment have a union presence in their workplace, but are not themselves union members. It is time for unions to take coordinated, national action to organise and recruit vulnerable workers – and to act to increase membership not just among directly employed staff, but also the employees of contractors and workers who are supplied by employment agencies.

  • Unions must act to ensure they represent the interests of vulnerable workers. Unions should organise all workers in workplaces where there is a union presence, whoever employs them and whether their employment is direct or temporary. Unions should also focus on areas of the economy where exploitation is rife and where trade union membership is low. Trade unions should commit to a TUC co-ordinated drive to boost membership among vulnerable workers.

Guaranteeing rights down the supply chain

Our research shows that over 80 per cent of employers now subcontract parts of their business. As supply chains become longer, enforcement of rights becomes more complex and responsibilities more ambiguous. Employers in the private sector and public bodies can do more to ensure that their supply chains do not support vulnerable work. Consumers should be able
to hold employers to account.

  • Responsible employers should work together to challenge vulnerable employment. Unions and employers should work together to develop an ethical employment initiative, involving existing organisations that provide support with corporate social responsibility and building on good practice to develop supply chain standards aiming to challenge vulnerable employment in the UK; and Government and other public bodies should use procurement to improve employment standards.
© Trades Union Congress 2007