Government to create ‘one-stop shop’ watchdog for labour rights

Minister promises new body will expand minimum wage enforcement and take action on firms ‘turning a blind eye’ to abuses in their supply chains

A “powerful” new workers’ rights watchdog will be created to act as a “one-stop shop” for enforcement, the government has said.

The new body will combine the roles of the separate bodies that currently enforce the minimum wage, police modern slavery and protect agency workers, and is being introduced to help tackle labour abuses like those that came to light in Leicester textile factories last year.

As well as enforcing the existing powers belonging to the separate enforcement bodies, including HMRC’s scheme naming and shaming employers that fail to pay the minimum wage, the new body will extend minimum wage enforcement to workers employed through agencies or gangmasters.

It will also remove the need for vulnerable workers to turn to the tribunal system to reclaim holiday or sick pay entitlements.

In a statement, the government added that the watchdog would also create a “single, recognisable port of call” where workers can “blow the whistle on bad behaviour”.

Business minister Paul Scully said: “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.

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“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.”

Kate Shoesmith, deputy CEO of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, welcomed the announcement, and said a single enforcement body for labour rights was something the organisation had “long asked for”.

“This single body should encourage closer collaboration between the different strands of labour market enforcement and make it easier for workers to redress issues,” she said.

“We hope the government presses on with this quickly. Merging the current enforcement bodies will be complex, and the new body will need to be properly resourced to work effectively. The government must also ensure the single body has the powers it needs to drive real change.”

Currently, minimum wage enforcement, the policing of modern slavery and protection of agency workers are conducted by three separate agencies – HMRC’s national minimum wage enforcement, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate respectively.

The government has also promised to explore other ways to target abuse in the garment sector specifically, including the possibility of creating a ‘garment trade adjudicator’ to investigate companies’ supply chains, or extending the licensing rules currently regulating employers in the agricultural sector.

Last year, an investigation by The Sunday Times reported garment workers in factories in Leicester, allegedly supplying fashion brand Boohoo and others, were paying workers as little as £3.50 per hour and forcing them to work in unsafe conditions and without PPE despite the risk posed by coronavirus. The area at the time was under a local lockdown because of transmission rates.

Boohoo’s modern slavery statement says it has since commissioned an independent review of its Leicester supply base and has taken steps to improve its compliance, corporate governance and monitoring.

The government’s plans for a new enforcement body were outlined in its response to its consultation on the matter, and is the latest part of its Good Work Plan to improve workers’ rights.