An agency that calls themselves experts… but exploits vulnerable migrant workers – a case study

Today a Romanian man with poor English came to us to ask about advice because he’s not been paid by his work agency.

He was employed in a big construction recruitment agency that covers national construction sites. He was working as a Plaster Jointer six days per week, 10 hours per day, for 5 weeks including Christmas/New Year holidays. He wasn’t paid for last two weeks of work. When he went to the agency office to ask for his money, he was told that if he wanted to be paid he had to find himself a lawyer. And the doors shut.

It is very disturbing to think that companies that build our homes, shopping centres and offices use migrant workers who are exploited and not paid. Our casework suggests that this problem is endemic. There is the whole corporate business model based on the premise that a company can engage a migrant worker for work and then just simply not pay for it. Eastern European workers work for hours on end and the sheer fact of their perceived limited English skills cause that employers or contractors can shot the doors when workers claim their wages.

In this particular case, a number of rules and laws were breached and among them:

  • the worker was misinformed in relation to their status and led to believe that he was self-employed – agency work is not self-employment and it doesn’t matter what people are ‘led to believe’ because it’s the true state of business that counts
  • the worker was exploited and led to believe that if he carries on working he may eventually be paid which may account for a case of modern slavery
  • there is no proof of taxes and contributions being paid for this worker so it is fair to assume that: 1) the worker was deprived of social security and rights linked to full market participation and paying taxes, and 2) the agency avoids paying taxes and other dues
  • we didn’t find any proof that the worker had CSCS certificates required for his skilled work so the company put him and other people on site in health and safety risks
  • the worker worked for 10 hours a day, six days a week, which simply means 60 hours a week; he never opted out from working time regulations (sometimes called ‘working time directive’) that state that a worker cannot work on average more than 48 hours a week; it means that the company has been in breach of ‘working time directive’

Unless there is better protection of workers’ rights in the UK, and welfare and wellbeing of migrant workers will be treated equally as British workers, this case study will be just one of many and business as usual.

We ask the government to make sure that new measures aiming at labour protection enforcement put at heart workers and not their immigration status. No migrant worker wants to be underpaid, exploited or abused and no migrant worker wants to ‘undercut wages’ – they are under- or un-paid and it’s a violation of law.

We ask the government to increase resources of newly strengthen labour inspectorates (Gangmasters Licensing Authority to become the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority) so that workers in the UK are treated fairly. Especially if they are migrants or if they work in non-unionised sectors. Too many sectors offer horrible work conditions for half of the minimum wage, especially in the services’ industry (esp. in catering, hospitality, distribution and warehousing) or construction to believe that the problem is not endemic.

We ask large companies to comply with the modern slavery legislation and assure that there are no cases of exploitation and forced labour in their supply chains.