Migrant workers are most affected as Bristol attempts change of practices.
Illustration: Laurence Ware
*Ben Crawford is a Social Policy Researcher for Bristol Citizens Advice Bureau
Last year, we at the Bristol Citizens Advice Bureau (BCAB) carried out research (see report) into the impact of precarious employment in the city. Crucial findings showed migrant workers are particularly at risk of experiencing problems in relation to insecure work. In 2015-16, non-UK nationals accounted for 46% of employment enquiries from our clients despite making up only 15% of the population. Indeed, figures showed that 70% of enquiries concerning non-payment or illegal deductions of wages came from non-UK nationals, the majority of whom had insecure contracts.
Jan, a Polish van driver I spoke to explained, “they call you when they need you… [and] find any reason to fire you, and you don’t get the money. They always owe you two weeks wages, and they never pay it once you’ve left.” These types of problems are concentrated in certain sectors; catering, cleaning, factory and warehouse work, in which foreign born workers are overrepresented.
Reliance on foreign workers has a knock-on effect for inter-community cohesion. The denial of employment rights to migrant workers is both detrimental to the individuals concerned and also gives rise to domestic workers being concerned about undercutting.
More generally, the reports’ findings show BCAB clients were three times more likely to be on agency, temporary or zero-hours contracts than the national average. These workers earn less, are more likely to be denied basic employment rights such as holiday pay, and are more likely to report difficulty in managing their finances, increasing their risk of getting into debt and losing their homes.
Flexible employment contracts can work for people, if they are choosing flexibility to fit with other commitments. However, it is often low-paid workers with restricted work opportunities that are being forced into insecure contracts.
Despite the high media profile of zero-hours contracts in recent years, attention recently shifted to the rapidly rising self-employment figures which may indicate an increase in insecure work. Companies wrongly classify workers as self-employed to avoid statutory obligations such as the right to the minimum wage. Support in government for maintaining a “flexible labour market” suggest measures to extend protections to vulnerable workers is unlikely.
A Bristol Method?
Because of this, promotion of best practice to ensure fair use of flexible work contracts is essential to protecting workers in Bristol. Bristol City Council have shown willingness to use local authority spending to achieve social aims through the ‘Social Value Policy’ announced this year. This includes objectives for an increase in apprenticeships, and 25% of spending going to local microbusinesses and SME’s. The adoption of a Corporate Social Responsibility Charter as announced by Marvin Rees is potentially a positive step in this direction. Companies in receipt of Council contracts through procurement should commit to upholding key principles of best employment practice.
Self-employed and agency cleaners, delivery drivers and factory workers are often ultimately working for major brands and companies. Corporate Social Responsibility must mean companies are required to provide decent conditions of employment to all who work within their organisations – in house employees or not.
To be effective, any such Charter needs to ensure a fair balance of power in the workplace where flexible contracts are to be used. One-sided contracts requiring workers to be available on a daily basis despite no guarantee of work should be prohibited. To ensure contracts fit with the reality of people’s working circumstances, workers should have the right to request a review of their employment status and contract after 3 months of continuous employment. Other provisions to ensure fair rota systems and prevent last minute cancellations of work would also help to increase stability and income security.
Implementing strong measures locally is only part of the challenge; action needs to be taken in Parliament to close gaps in employment law currently being used to exploit and deny workers their basic rights. Meanwhile we hope for robust action locally to improve standards.
Access to advice and support for workers facing these problems is crucial and organisations such as Citizens Advice Bristol can help. For more information, visit www.bristolcab.org.uk or attend their drop-in centre which is open every weekday from 9:30am – 1pm at 48 Fairfax Street, Bristol BS1 3BL.