Accessible advice for exploited workers: a look at international solutions

Blog5 Dec 2017

Accessible advice and reporting gateways for workers to get information about their employment rights and report abuses are key to the prevention of labour exploitation. FLEX research has found that in the UK, existing advice and reporting mechanisms such as ACAS and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) hotline, currently are not accessible to all. This leaves some unaware of their rights and unable to report labour abuses.

In the UK, ACAS is the main gateway for advice on labour rights. Our research has shown that persons with little understanding of the UK employment rights system and poor English language skills are unable to use the hotline without support. In 2016, 92% of those calling ACAS about pay and rights stated English to be their first language. FLEX has therefore called for more targeted efforts to reach migrant workers. For advice to be meaningful, callers should receive advice in their native language and they should be able to call outside their working hours.

For those with insecure immigration status, the fear that their information could be shared with immigration authorities often keeps them from reporting abuse and exploitation. Therefore, accessible reporting services must allow for anonymous calls. The effectiveness of reporting tools depends on trust; if the most vulnerable workers do not feel safe to use them, advice and reporting services cannot be successful in tackling or preventing labour abuses. To build this trust, there must be a strict firewall between labour inspection and immigration enforcement. In the USA, this separation is ensured through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between immigration and labour inspection authorities. By creating a clear separation of roles, the MoU ensures that immigration control does not interfere with the protection of workers’ rights. When persons with insecure immigration status know that they can report labour abuses without fear of immigration authorities, they are more likely to make use of advice and reporting services.

While ACAS appears to focus increasingly on online support, people in precarious situations may not have access to computers and when they do, may require support to navigate the available advice. A move to online services without considering the impact on this group is likely to make ACAS less accessible, placing workers at risk of exploitation. In Canada, the Government has recognised migrant workers’ diverse advice needs and the Temporary Foreign Worker Advisory Office operates a helpline, provides in-person advice and organises webinars. All advice is free and confidential. This combination of approaches to advice provision enables migrant workers to access advice on their rights at work and their immigrations status in a way that suits their needs.

As an addition to helplines and in-person advice, a smartphone app may help to raise awareness of workers’ rights and responsibilities and could increase the reporting of non-compliances. In the USA, the app Jornalero enables workers to log their hours and wages and to rate their employers. The data they share is linked to a phone number, but is otherwise anonymous. The intelligence gathered is used by lawyers to contact the employer, without the worker having to be identified.

Advice and reporting mechanisms can only prevent labour exploitation when they are accessible to all workers. FLEX encourages the UK Government to look to international best practice in this field and to develop a strategy which recognises the diverse advice needs of workers and the barriers to reporting labour exploitation.

Read FLEX’s full recommendations on gateways to reporting here