Business leaders and unions call for new deal for UKs 1.2 million vulnerable female workers

8th May 2008

The TUC's Commission on Vulnerable Employment reveals that 1.2 million women workers are 'trapped in a continual round of low-paid and insecure work where mistreatment is the norm'.

The Commission's final report finds that 62 per cent of the UK's two million vulnerable workforce are female.

The Commission, set up by the TUC and involving employers and independent experts as well as trade unionists, says Government, unions, employers and consumers must now all play a part in ending exploitation at work.

Commissioners say that they were shocked both by the extent of vulnerable work and that much of the poor treatment they found was perfectly legal. The report says that 'employment practices attacked as exploitative in the 19th century are still common today' and that the 'poor treatment at work that we have found should not be tolerated.'

Commissioner Belinda Earl, Chief Executive of Jaeger, said: 'During my work on the Commission I was able to meet with some of the UK's most vulnerable workers. I was shocked that such poor practice still exists. I met with migrant domestic workers, who were being underpaid and exploited - and who faced physical and sexual violence from their employers. It is unacceptable that these practices exist today and more action is needed to prevent these extreme violations of employment law.'

TUC General Secretary and Chair of the Commission Brendan Barber said: 'All the Commissioners - whatever their backgrounds - were shocked at just how vulnerable some workers are in today's Britain. Their treatment is a national scandal, and we need urgent action.

'Women are most likely to bear the brunt of vulnerable employment, but its impact stretches far wider. The whole family suffers if women are paid poverty wages or are mistreated at work, and community ties are also damaged. Employers, unions, the Government and civil society must now all play a role in tackling vulnerable employment.'

Katherine Rake, Director of the Fawcett Society, said: 'Sixty two per cent of the vulnerable workers identified in the Commission's report are female. Women are disproportionately likely to face poverty pay and rights abuses as temps, homeworkers, cleaners and carers. It is vital that the Government acts to stop the abuse of these women's rights by tightening up regulation and ending the unequal treatment of agency workers.'

The report says that vulnerable workers suffer because they do not know their rights, lack an escape route from vulnerable jobs, cannot get their rights enforced - and often suffer when they try to - and fall through gaps in employment law which means they do not enjoy the decent minimum standards to which the Government is committed. The report reveals OECD research showing that the UK has less employment protection than any other advanced economy apart from the USA.

Testimonies from vulnerable women workers feature in the report:

  • Angela has worked full-time as an office cleaner for a large cleaning contractor for almost seven years. After taking time off work after a miscarriage she was sacked for taking 'too much time off sick', but her union helped her get her job back. On an average day Angela starts work at 6am and gets a forty minute unpaid break at 9am. She then works from 9:40am-1:15pm, despite her contractual hours ending at 12:45pm. There were previously two cleaners working on Angela's office but she is now the only one and has to do the work previously done by two people within the same number of hours. Her company breaches health and safety regulations by advising their workers to mix cleaning chemicals and Angela has even had to buy products with her own money. Her manager is rude towards workers and shouts at them.
  • Anne is a lone parent and a qualified nurse who balances work with care of her young daughter. Anne's last job was as a part-time support assistant for a large service provider. When her shift pattern changed to include more sleep-overs Anne's childcare arrangements fell through and she went 'sessional' - switching to a zero-hours contract with only a verbal agreement that she would be able to work certain fixed hours five days a week. After speaking out about neglect, Anne was bullied and 'murmurings' began that she would no longer be given hours that suited her. Anne began a period of debilitating depression and was signed off sick. She was told she could not claim sick pay as she was sessional. Anne eventually claimed statutory sick pay and kept her employer updated on her condition. Once she was recovered, she asked for a back to work meeting. Anne was told this was no longer possible as no hours were available, but when she rang up two weeks later two new members of staff had joined since she had 'left'. The two managers she spoke to both emphasised that because she was sessional there was no obligation to offer work.
  • Sam is 17 and comes from a Traveller family. She is bright and intelligent with a keen sense of what she wants from life. Sam thinks her careers advice didn't come at the right time and was inadequate. She wanted to do a plumbing or car mechanics apprenticeship after school but found that being a girl meant she wasn't taken seriously. Because she couldn't get into anything she was really interested in Sam decided to do a hairdressing apprenticeship. She considered hairdressing to be something that would give her at least some security, although she wasn't particularly interested in the work. Sam was only paid £60 a week, which is less than the Learning and Skills Council's agreed minimum (£80), and much less than most male apprentices receive (their average pay is around 21 per cent more than that of young women who are apprentices). This rate worked out around £1.70 an hour.
  • Originally from Pakistan, Mrs Begum is in her 40s. Her restricted English skills and family commitments has left her little option but part time home sewing work. She does 16 hours a week and gets paid one pound per item sewn. But as she can only do three to four items an hour she gets paid below the minimum wage - and she gets no sick or holiday pay.

Among the recommendations made by the Commission's report, available free on-line at (pre-embargo media access to the report, quotes from supportive organisations, quotes from commissioner and additional research are available at are:

  • To counter widespread ignorance of employment rights, particularly among vulnerable workers, there should be a major awareness programme and better funding of employment rights advice.
  • To counter the lack of proactive and co-ordinated enforcement of employment rights, there should be more funding for enforcement agencies such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the minimum wage enforcement unit of HMRC, changes in the law that will allow them to work together more closely and more proactive enforcement that targets bad employers without waiting for complaints from their insecure victims.
  • Some straightforward breaches of employment rights, such as illegal deductions from pay packets, which currently can only be enforced by individuals taking difficult and slow Employment Tribunal cases should be policed by an agency such as HMRC's minimum wage enforcement unit.
  • A new Fair Employment Commission involving employers, unions and civil society groups should co-ordinate the work of enforcement agencies, monitor awareness of employment rights and make recommendations to Government.
  • The Gangmasters' Licensing Authority (GLA) regime should apply to other sectors where agencies use vulnerable workers as there is evidence of exploitative treatment in sectors that are not currently regulated such as care homes or construction.
  • There should be a reform of employment status law that denies rights and any security to workers who do not count as employees as they do not have a contract of employment.
  • Equal treatment for agency workers with permanent employees doing the same work.
  • Changes in immigration law to reduce the vulnerability of migrant workers who raise complaints to losing their jobs and thus facing destitution.
  • Vulnerable workers should be helped to move into better jobs, through more training - including ESOL for migrant workers - and a more flexible benefits system.

Article provided by Trade Union Congress


Posted by, Asif Yusuf



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