Political

Cross-party group demand measures to prevent Covid-19 causing rise in modern slavery

A press release from the Liberal Democrats brings the news…

A cross-party group led by the Liberal Democrats have set out a package of demands to protect workers from exploitation during the coronavirus crisis and prevent a rise in modern slavery, including classifying labour inspection as ‘essential work’  to enable inspectors to ensure workplaces are operating appropriately.

The package of measures, supported by the charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), also include adequate personal protective equipment for labour inspectors and emergency funding to labour market enforcement and advisory agencies to enable them to conduct preventative campaigns and monitoring, especially in high-risk sectors.

Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson Christine Jardine, who has organised support from nearly 60 MPs and peers from across the political spectrum, has warned that unless the Government takes these common-sense steps to ensure labour inspections can continue, Ministers are, “risking a spike in modern slavery on top of the misery caused by coronavirus” with people forced to take job offers with abusive or exploitative conditions to earn a living.

According to Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), the Coronavirus crisis is having a particularly strong impact on workers who were already at higher risk of experiencing labour abuses and exploitation. This includes women, migrant workers, and workers in low-paid yet vital sectors such as agriculture, domestic work, cleaning, deliveries and warehousing.

Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson Christine Jardine said:

It’s absolutely vital that we recognise that the coronavirus crisis is leaving the most vulnerable in our communities at risk. Thousands of families will face unprecedented financial hardship and the Government is not doing nearly enough to protect people from falling into modern slavery.

Unless the Government takes these common-sense steps to ensure labour inspections can continue, it is risking a spike in modern slavery on top of the misery caused by coronavirus.

Modern slavery is a scourge that must not be allowed to flourish during the coronavirus crisis. The Government’s inaction must not continue.

Lucila Granada, CEO of Focus on Labour Exploitation, added:

Labour inspectors play a crucial role in keeping our workplaces and essential workers safe during these difficult times. The failure to include them as ‘essential workers’ is an oversight that must be rectified immediately.

Our research has found that workers are already experiencing pandemic-related abuses. This includes refusal of entitlements to sick pay, forcing people with symptoms to go to work who should be self-isolating to protect their own and the public health.

In addition, many low paid workers are losing their jobs and urgently seeking new income; desperation will prevent them from saying ‘no’ to abusive conditions, making inspection even more imperative than ever before. Without this in place, we may see a surge in modern slavery cases over the coming months.

We urge the government to classify inspectors as essential workers and ensure they have sufficient PPE and funding to protect our workforce and support the national effort against COVID-19.

The full text of Christine Jardine’s letter is:

To: Priti Patel, Home Secretary; Alok Sharma, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; Victoria Atkins, Minister for Safeguarding

We are writing to raise concerns about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on modern slavery and labour exploitation, and to urge you to take action to protect workers during this crisis – especially those already at high risk of exploitation.

We welcome the unprecedented measures taken by the Government to date to provide income support for many workers. However, we are concerned that measures to protect our workforce from modern slavery have been overlooked, and encourage you to include them.

Labour exploitation – from isolated breaches of employment rights to modern slavery – is a scourge that must be tackled, as you have rightly acknowledged in the past. It must not be allowed to flourish during the coronavirus crisis.

As the charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) has said, “The Coronavirus crisis is having a particularly strong impact on workers who were already at higher risk of experiencing labour abuses and exploitation.” This includes women, migrant workers, and workers in low-paid yet vital sectors such as agriculture, domestic work, cleaning, deliveries and warehousing.

For example, FLEX reports that workers are being denied Statutory Sick Pay by their employers, despite being entitled to it. This is a breach of labour law which would need to be rectified in normal times; however, it must be taken even more seriously now as this prevents workers from self-isolating, should they experience symptoms associated with coronavirus.

Meanwhile, some workers in critical sectors – such as supermarket cashiers, cleaners and delivery drivers – are being required to work in unsafe conditions, with their employers failing to provide necessary personal protective equipment or hand sanitiser. This puts them, their families and public health at risk.

Finally, widespread job losses and hours reductions for those in low-paid work are being reported by frontline services. These workers, many of whom are unable to access either of the COVID-19 income support schemes (or Universal Credit with necessary speed) are seeking new work urgently. They will be unable to turn down job offers with abusive or exploitative conditions, as this will mean a choice between affording basic living costs and facing destitution. Over time and left unchecked, this is likely to lead to a spike in modern slavery offences as trafficking gangs and others exploit these workers’ predicament.

Given the heightened risks of exploitation during this crisis, it is vital that enforcement agencies are able to conduct labour inspections and act to prevent exploitation. The Government has rightly recognised that workers in food production are critical to the coronavirus response, but it must also include the people who ensure that they have safe, legal working conditions.

It is also especially important during these uncertain and difficult times that workers have access to information and advice about their rights and entitlements. This can prevent initial isolated labour abuses going unchecked and being compounded over time. However, Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) has been forced to reduce its online helpline service due to high demand in recent weeks.

We therefore urge you to take the following pragmatic steps to protect workers from exploitation during the coronavirus crisis, all of which could be introduced without the need for any legislation or statutory instruments and will help to prevent a rise in modern slavery:

  1. Classify labour inspection as ‘essential work’, to enable inspectors to ensure workplaces are operating appropriately and to enable them to send their children to school.
  2. Provide labour inspectors with adequate personal protective equipment.
  3. Ensure that proactive inspections are carried out, with a particular focus on high-risk sectors.
  4. Provide emergency funding to labour market enforcement and advisory agencies to enable them to conduct preventative campaigns and monitoring, especially in high-risk sectors.

We are sure you will agree that the coronavirus emergency must not lead to an increase in modern slavery or labour exploitation more broadly. We believe that these measures are urgently needed to prevent that, alongside others set out by FLEX in their briefing No Worker Left Behind: Protecting vulnerable workers from exploitation during and after the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Christine Jardine MP
Ed Davey MP
Layla Moran MP
Wera Hobhouse MP
Wendy Chamberlain MP
Tim Farron MP
Munira Wilson MP
Daisy Cooper MP
Alistair Carmichael MP
Jamie Stone MP
Sarah Olney MP
Sir Peter Bottomley MP (Con)
Siobhain McDonagh MP (Lab)
Tommy Sheppard MP (SNP)
Jon Cruddas MP (Lab)
Sarah Champion MP (Lab)
Drew Hendry MP (SNP)
Dr Philippa Whitford MP (SNP)
Clive Lewis MP (Lab)
Stephen Farry MP (APNI)
Mohammad Yasin MP (Lab)
Mike Hill MP (Lab)
Sammy Wilson MP (DUP)
Virendra Sharma MP (Lab)
Neale Hanvey MP (I)
Allan Dorans MP (SNP)
Andrew Gwynne MP (Lab)
Chris Law MP (SNP)
Paul Girvan MP (DUP)
Diana Johnson MP (Lab)
Stuart McDonald MP (SNP)
Lord Addington
Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted
Baroness Brinton
Lord Bruce of Bennachie
Baroness Burt of Solihull
Lord Campbell of Pittenweem
Lord Dholakia
Baroness Featherstone
Lord Foster of Bath
Lord German
Lord Goddard of Stockport
Baroness Hamwee
Baroness Hussein-Ece
Lord Jones of Cheltenham
Baroness Kramer
Baroness Ludford
Lord McNally
Baroness Northover
Lord Rennard
Lord Scriven
Baroness Sheehan
Lord Stunell
Baroness Suttie
Baroness Thornhill
Baroness Thomas of Winchester
Lord Tope
Lord Tyler
Lord Wallace of Saltaire

 

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