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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.