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It's time to get tough on non-payment of the minimum wage

At least 300,000 workers in the UK still do not receive the legal minimum. The current compliance system is in desperate need of reform.

A restaurant worker protests against employers who pay less than the minimum wage outside Pizza Express on September 27, 2007. Photograph: Getty Images.

The national minimum wage, now 15 years old, is one of the most significant institutional innovations in Britain’s political economy. It has established a baseline for earning that no worker should fall below. Yet according to a new report, Settle for nothing less, out today from the Centre for London, at least 300,000 workers in the UK still do not receive the bare minimum to which they are entitled. This is not good enough in 21st century Britain: no one here should have to work for less than the legal minimum.

Compliance with the minimum wage is enforced nationally by HMRC on the government’s behalf. This arrangement costs about £8m per year but only identifies roughly £4m of arrears owed to short-changed workers. As well as securing the return of these arrears, it imposes fines on non-compliant employers and, on rare occasions, pursues them further in the courts.

In too many parts of the workforce, though, this system is not working. Thousands of home carers, doing some of the most important work in our society, are not getting paid for their travel time between clients. Apprenticeships are part of the answer for the million young people in our country now out of work, but their abuse in sectors such as hairdressing is endemic. Internships too often amount to proper work yet remain unpaid. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, especially when their employer also provides the roof over their heads. General awareness of basic entitlements is low and the current regime of sanctions for non-compliance is weak. Moreover, workers who are being exploited are unlikely to pick up the phone to report their employers to a remote and distant Pay and Work Rights Helpline.

It does not have to be this way. Today’s report argues for change to address systemic challenges to minimum wage compliance, specific concerns about migration, low levels of awareness and negligible sanctions, and an institutional framework for the delivery of minimum wage enforcement that can be improved. 

The report’s recommendations include:

  • building a schedule that requires minimum wage payment into local authorities’ home care contracts;
  • abolishing the first-year apprentice rate of the minimum wage;
  • banning the advertising of unpaid internships;
  • removing the cap on fines for employers flouting the minimum wage;
  • prosecuting repeat offenders;
  • and naming every employer found to be in breach.

But the single best thing we could do to increase compliance with the minimum wage is to devolve primary responsibility for its enforcement to the local level.

Local authorities are much closer to the ground than HMRC could ever be. They already do enforcement work with local employers when it comes to trading standards, waste, health and safety, planning, licensing and more. The businesses that ignore these regulations are often the same businesses that flout the minimum wage. Local authorities know the employers in their patch – both the bad ones that may need investigating and the good ones who have a vested interest in leveling the playing field.

The current system for minimum wage enforcement is excessively centralised and exploited workers suffer as a result. From hotel cleaners paid unfair rates per room rather than per hour to migrant domestic workers treated as modern slaves, localised enforcement of the minimum wage would heighten the prospect of their unscrupulous employers getting caught.  

Empowering local authorities to enforce the minimum wage would help us ensure that it is worth the paper it is written on. After all, it is supposed to be a right, not a perk.

Andy Hull is a Research Associate at the Centre for London.