Government stalls proposed workers’ rights watchdog

The UK government has reportedly shelved plans to introduce an independent body to oversee workers' rights in the country

16 Dec 2022| News

As reported by The Telegraph, business secretary Grant Shapps told the Commons on 13 December that plans for a single enforcement body for labour laws have been put to one side.

Announced in June 2021 the watchdog was intended to combine the work done by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate and HM Revenue & Customs’ national minimum wage enforcement team.

Shapps told the House of Commons business committee: “We’ve spent two years plus of this parliament fighting Covid. It may well be with two years left to go that we’re still able to address some of that. But what we’re more interested in is making sure that the bodies that are already there are operating effectively.”

The proposed group formed part of the Conservative manifesto and was a component of proposed revisions to the Employment Bill, which has also fallen by the wayside in 2022.

Angela O’Connor, CEO of The HR Lounge, said delaying the watchdog would be a missed opportunity for the government.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said:

“We have woken up today to widespread strikes and discontent that feel reminiscent of the 1970s. Workers in many sectors are feeling let down, unsupported and unprotected in the workplace. So it’s hard to understand why government have not only scrapped the Employment Bill which would have offered greater protection and support to women facing sexual harassment, pregnancy related discrimination and additional support to unpaid carers.

“Now we hear that the workers’ rights watchdog much lauded only last year is now on hold. This would have streamlined the work of three agencies into one and offered greater protection for working people.

“It feels like the government is squaring up for not only a fight with the trade unions but is walking away from protecting those in the workplace who need it most. A huge missed opportunity to achieve a more supportive workplace and protect workers’ rights.”

The body would have had the power to impose significant fines on companies that broke labour laws, as well as being able to enforce rules regarding holiday pay, sick leave and minimum wage.

Ben Sellers, director at the Institute of Employment Rights (IER), said the decision is part of consistent pattern of government behaviour.

He told HR magazine:

“Judging by the record of this government, it’s clear that they have never been serious about addressing inequalities in our labour market and gaps in our employment law, so I don’t think it’s cynical to say that the Institute of Employment Rights never expected much to come of either the workers’ watchdog or an Employment Bill. At best, these were sticking plasters, when what is needed is a transformation of employment relations in this country, placing collective bargaining at the heart of it.

“The current industrial unrest is in part a consequence of the poor state of employment law in the UK, which is inadequate for the 21st century workplace. But rather than address that issue, the government has decided to ditch these commitments and go on the offensive against the trade union movement. That is a real shame, and unlikely to address any of the problems we face.”

Tim Sharp, senior employment rights policy officer at the Trades Union Congress (TUC), told HR magazine vulnerable workers will be adversely affected by the government’s decision.

He said:

“Workers will rightly be asking questions about the government’s priorities. Ministers have ditched their flagship workers’ rights initiative while threatening the right to strike and making it more difficult for working people to defend their pay and conditions.

“There are huge problems of bad employers failing to observe workers’ rights – from non-payment of holiday pay to exploitation of migrant workers on seasonal visas. A major problem is under-resourcing, with the UK having far fewer labour inspectors than international norms. Vulnerable workers will be paying the price for ministers’ failure to act.”

This article was first published in HR Magazine on the 15th Dec 2022