Sweatshop Labour and the Modern Slavery Act

Promoting safe workplaces has certainly not been a priority of either Labour or Tory Governments’ in recent decades.

The Tories, in particular, have attacked unions and workers since time immemorial, most recently with their hated Trade Union Bill; and they have determinedly refused to create fairly paid full-time employment opportunities, with just 1 out of every 40 new jobs created since the recession being full-time.

Now with the creation of the Modern Slavery Act, the Tories are trying to reinvent themselves as the true carers of workers’ rights. But if we look behind their shallow lies, we see that their attacks on workplace rights continue unabated.

The largest inspectorate charged with the promotion of safe workplaces is the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), but since 2010 Government funding for the HSE has been cut by around 40%, leading to one third decrease in proactive inspections.

Funding for other labour inspection agencies tasked with keeping their eyes peeled for exploitative bosses are under attack too. So while there are 2,599 HSE employees, around a third of whom are inspectors, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate has considerably less frontline staff: just nine, in fact.

By comparison the National Minimum Wage (NMW) enforcement team, based in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), has 232 staff. This figure includes a 61 person increase on the previous year – a welcome (if overstated) increase that resulted from ongoing criticism of the fact that the numbers of national minimum wage investigations had fallen annually over the previous four years, from 2,904 in 2010-11 down to 1,455 in 2013-14.

The final and more recent addition to the labour inspectorate in the UK is the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), which, with a staff of 69, licenses and regulates employers in the farming, food processing, and shellfish gathering sectors. Unfortunately GLA inspections and enforcement actions have decreased dramatically in recent years, dropping from 134 in 2011 to 68 in 2014; while prosecutions were down from 19 in 2010 to three in 2014.

In the face of a general trend of massive staffing cuts, much has been made in the national media of the Government’s Modern Slavery Act, which came into force in July. But as the October report (“Combatting Labour Exploitation Through Labour Inspection”) published by Focus on Labour Exploitation points out: “Reductions to the resources and remit of labour inspection agencies in the UK directly contravenes the intentions of the Modern Slavery Act.”

Unlike most European States, the report observes, the UK does not have a comprehensive labour inspection system, which is why “Experts in the field of modern slavery have urged the Government to extend the remit of the GLA to all UK labour sectors.” This is something that is strongly backed by the trade union movement, which, with the support of progressive socialist MPs like John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, has already played a central role in getting the GLA set up in the first place.

As Focus on Labour Exploitation researchers’ rightly conclude: although in some ways the Modern Slavery Act can be seen as a step forward, it has also “provided cover” for the Tories pro-corporate deregulation and anti-migrant policies that “actively create the space for exploitation, particularly of migrant workers, to flourish.”

This letter was emailed to the Leicester Mercury on December 6.


Focus on Labour Exploitation write: “The Gangmasters (Licensing) Private Members Bill was introduced to the Houses of Parliament by Jim Sheridan MP in 2003. However, the Labour Government at the time was resistant to establishing statutory licensing, favouring an industry-led accreditation scheme.” The Morecambe Bay tragedy (of February 5, 2004) however forced the Labour Government into an about-face, leading to the creation of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.

In 2012, John McDonnell tabled Early Day Motion 196 (“Gangmasters Licensing Authority”) to ask “the Government to recognise that any cut to the remit of the GLA will have entirely negative consequences; and calls on the Government to rethink its proposals which will put vulnerable workers at serious risk of exploitation, injury and death.” This EDM was only supported by 48 Labour MPs, none of whom represented the people of Leicester.


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