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.

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.

A restaurant worker protests against employers who pay less than the minimum wage outside Pizza Express on September 27, 2007. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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