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Supporting Londoners to stand up for their rights at work

Debbie Weekes Bernard
Debbie Weekes Bernard

Author: Debbie Weekes-Bernard, Deputy Mayor, Communities and Social Justice

River Thames motif grey

What would you do if you felt you were being treated unfairly by your employer? What if you thought your employer was breaking the law? For too many people working in London, the process of trying to resolve an employment issue is complex, intimidating and off-putting.

Some Londoners - like those who speak limited English or are on precarious contracts - face situations at work where standing up for your rights is even more difficult given the threat of losing your job and your income. This means abuses like underpayment, discrimination and unfair dismissal too often go unchecked.

As London’s Deputy Mayor for Communities and Social Justice, I’m aware of the emotional toll that experiencing and trying to raise an abuse of your employment rights can take on someone.

To help provide Londoners with clear and accessible information about their rights in the workplace, and how to resolve a problem at work, the Mayor launched his Employment Rights Hub in 2019.

We know, however, that even when someone has access to information about their rights, there are many other reasons why voicing a concern and pursing justice can be extremely difficult. That’s why the Greater London Authority commissioned ClearView Research to carry out qualitative research with Londoners about their experiences and challenges when trying to resolve employment rights issues at work.

The research used co-creative and deliberative research methodologies which put Londoners with lived experience of employment rights violations at the centre of the research project. The researchers were supported by members of Trust for London’s Employment Legal Advice Network and the South London Refugee Association to ensure the process reflected the broad variety of voices these organisations represent.

High Risk, No Reward: Resolving Employment Rights Issues in London has identified systemic barriers that prevent people from knowing their rights and feeling confident about advocating for themselves.

The research found that the risk of potentially losing a job is the biggest barrier of all. No matter how well someone knows their rights, many are aware that they simply do not have the financial security to risk losing their current job. People on more precarious contracts, like agency workers or those on zero-hour contracts, feared unscrupulous employers might replace them if they complained. Participants on low pay and migrant workers tended to express the least confidence or optimism around the benefit of raising an issue. One participant spoke about a fear of “going against the person that’s feeding you”.

For workers who had limited English, many felt confident in their ability to recognise when something was not right at work, but were hesitant to voice their concerns because they didn’t know the specific words or have the fluency to respond to employers’ counter-responses. Lacking confidence in English also opened them up to greater exploitation, because their employer knew they had few options to go and find work elsewhere.

Participants who were of Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, women, and disabled workers described how daily experiences of microaggressions - and often outright aggression - in the workplace acted as a constant reminder that they did not belong or were not protected by their employer. This history and culture of discrimination in an organisation meant that many completely lacked confidence that they would be listened to if they raised an issue.

The impact of struggling to raise a concern at work can have a real and sustained impact on someone’s mental wellbeing, as well as their ability to stay in employment. That’s why employment legal advice is so crucial to help validate people’s experiences of illegal treatment at work, and can provide guidance on the steps to take to access justice.

Addressing these barriers is critical to the Mayor’s ambition to make London a fairer city to work in. It’s unacceptable that workers experiencing unfair or illegal treatment feel unable to speak up about issues of discrimination, unsafe working conditions or unfair pay.

The Greater London Authority are working with ClearView Research to understand how the GLA can respond to the findings of the research, and ensure that Londoners experiencing employment rights abuses are able to access relevant information and support to enforce their rights. This work will build on the Mayor’s existing programmes to promote good work and fair pay, such as the Employment Rights Hub, which provides information for Londoners in 20+ languages, and the Good Work Standard, the Mayor’s benchmark for employer practice in London.

28 June