Since the EU referendum of June 2016 the circumstances of EU nationals in the UK who are exploited or experience difficult working conditions have worsened.
It is hard to estimate how many people are engaged in unprotected, insecure and low-paid jobs (also called precarious work), or where they are from. But we know from the National Crime Agency that as many as 2,352 cases of labour exploitation were reported in 2017 and many concerned Europeans, especially from Romania, Poland and Hungary.
The precariousness makes these workers one of the most likely groups to be affected negatively by status changes associated with Brexit.
At the Work Rights Centre (WoRC), we help people exit precariousness. Since starting in 2016, we have dealt with 183 cases, primarily people from Romania, Portugal, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Germany and France. Their jobs have been predominantly in the construction, hospitality, cleaning, delivery and healthcare sectors.
Between June 2016 and January 2018, our records show that 30% of our beneficiaries were paid below the national minimum wage, despite the National Minimum Wage Act of 1998. These EU workers were either not aware that the national minimum wage applies to them, or they felt they had no choice but accepting the conditions.
Our data also shows that most were not aware of the importance of having a written agreement with their employers. As many as 50% of our service users had not been given written terms. While this is not illegal, it is difficult to claim rights if there is no evidence of an agreement between the worker and the employer.
Furthermore, a third worked without receiving payslips or sending invoices and 10% only “sometimes” received payslips or sent invoices. A fifth of our service users also said that neither they nor their employers paid National Insurance contributions, with a further 12% reporting being unsure whether contributions had been paid.
All this has consequences not only in terms of possible exploitation, but also for evidencing employment status in the UK once the country leaves the European Union.
Working long hours is another feature of being trapped in a precarious job. Under the Working Time Regulations Act 1998, implementing the EU Working Time Directive, work should be limited to 48 hours per week on average. However, 24% of those seeking advice from us worked more than 48 hours a week.
Other issues faced by our beneficiaries were related to false self-employment, lack of employability skills, poor access to child support and unpaid leave. Only 26% of people who have children reported taking time off work to look after a child.
The result is that for some EU nationals it might be problematic to prove the right to live and work in the UK. Some types of jobs are difficult to document, either because they involve multiple short-term engagements or because there are no written agreements or because employment involves variable or unpredicted hours. HR practices with limited paperwork, i.e. some agencies, could be a further difficulty. According to a recent report by the Migration Observatory, 179,000 EU nationals in the UK are agency workers, some of them paid by an agency in their home country.
In March 2018, the European Union and the United Kingdom agreed a draft Withdrawal Agreement saying it will protect those EU citizens who have exercised EU’s free movement rights in the UK before Brexit and have been legally resident in the country for at least 5 continuous years. They will be eligible to apply for ‘settled status’. Those arriving during the transition period will also be able to remain in the UK to build-up five years’ residence. But for some of them, proving their employment history could be a challenging task.
Lora Tabakova is Communications Officer at the Work Rights Centre (WoRC), a charity dedicated to ending in-work poverty by helping workers exit precarious work. WoRC registered (No. 1165419) with the Charity Commission at the beginning of 2016 and began its core services through the Employment Rights Clinic the same year.