It is now a criminal offence to hold a person in servitude, so what does this mean for employers and their staff?
The latest round of employment law changes saw new legislation coming into place on 6 April making it a criminal offence to hold a person in slavery or servitude, or to require them to perform forced or compulsory labour. Any person found guilty of the new offence can face up to 14 years in prison under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
So what is the impact on employers? Does this mean an end to unpaid overtime, or limit rights to increase production targets, or give employees rights to greater benefits? The answer to all of the above is no.
Fortunately, the concept of ‘forced labour’ is not found in the normal day-to-day contract of employment, no matter how much an employee may sometimes feel like it is. The fact is that an employee is normally given an option of whether or not to work for a particular employer.
In order to be forced labour, there has to be a level of coercion or deception beyond the ordinary. Poor pay and long hours will not be sufficient to lead to a breach of the new legislation.
There are many responsible employers in a number of sectors such as agriculture, construction or hospitality that depend to a large extent on low-cost, seasonal labour. The new legislation will not interfere with these employment arrangements, as workers are already protected through the Working Time Regulations and national minimum wage legislation.
Allegations that the employer is committing an offence under the new anti-slavery legislation will have to be supported by something out of the ordinary. For example, there could be evidence that an employee’s documents, such as a passport, were being withheld by the employer. Or it could be a case that the worker was being forced to live or remain in a particular area, perhaps in poor accommodation – or that the employer was not paying agreed wages.
In establishing forced or compulsory labour, an element of coercion or deception between the employer and worker will need to be shown. And the circumstances will need to be such that the employer knew the arrangement was oppressive and not truly voluntary, or had been willfully blind to that fact.
The legislation is targeted at protecting migrant workers in particular who may speak little English, are totally unaware of their employment rights, and who do not know how or where to report what is happening to them.
For employers that comply with current employment laws, this new legislation will have no impact on their day-to-day dealings with staff. There are no new legal obligations or restrictions. It has been introduced for the laudable purpose of creating clear criminal liability for those few employers that are exploiting the most vulnerable workers.