The Government has recently closed a consultation exercise on the introduction of a new criminal offence of aggravated labour law breach, designed to punish employers who breach employment law and, in doing so, deprive a worker of their rights or exploit a worker.

In some situations, the current enforcement framework permits state enforcement bodies to enforce legislation, for example:

  • HMRC for breaches of the national minimum wage;
  • Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate enforces the Employment Agencies Act 1973 and the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003; and
  • the Gangmasters Licensing Authority enforces the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004.

Despite this, the Government feels that tougher punishment is needed for rogue employers who deliberately exploit workers because the current regime makes it easy for them to do so.

Whilst the Government reports that the enforcement agencies find that the number of non-compliant employers is relatively low, and of these, most law breaches are unintentional, there are still a number of breaches which are shifting from individual abuses of employment law towards examples of organised criminal activity which amounts to labour market exploitation. For example, threats of violence against workers and their families or deliberate withholding of wages or significant pay deductions.

The new criminal offence will target these kind of offences, however, the term ‘exploitation’ would need to be defined. The consultation gives the following examples of what could constitute exploitation: withholding a worker’s identity or travel documents, threatening the worker with violence or removal from the UK, debt bondage and other things that make a worker more vulnerable to exploitation e.g. keeping them in tied housing in isolated locations, inhibiting their ability to contact the authorities.

Other measures being considered are:

  • establishing a statutory Director of Labour Market Enforcement who will set the priorities for the enforcement bodies across the spectrum of non-compliance
  • increasing the sharing or intelligence and data between the existing enforcement agencies; and
  • widening the remit and strengthening the powers of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to tackle serious exploitation.