Changes in employment law have now made it a criminal offence to hold a person in servitude or slavery, or require them to perform forced or compulsory labour. But how will this affect employers today?

The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 could see any person found guilty of the offence facing up to 14 years in prison. This might suggest that employers must take actions like ending unpaid overtime, increasing employee rights and benefits, or limiting rights to increase production targets. But there’s no need, and the definition of ‘forced labour’ is the reason why.

No matter how much a normal contract of employment feels like forced labour to an employee, they still maintain the option of whether or not to work for their employer. In order for labour to be forced, unusual amounts of pressure or deception need to be involved, so poor pay or long hours won’t provide a sufficient argument for anyone to claim a breach of legislation.

For employers who comply with the current employment laws, this legislation will have no impact on their everyday dealings with staff. And for those employers who rely on low-cost, seasonal labour, such as those involved with construction or agriculture, the legislation will not be an obstruction since their workers are already protected by the national minimum wage legislation and the Working Time Regulations.

Any allegations that are made, will need the support of extraordinary evidence. For example, this could be documents showing that the employer is withholding an employee’s passport or other important documents, or proof that the employer isn’t paying the agreed wages. In these cases, the employer would have to be shown to have known that the arrangement was oppressive, or be blind to the fact.

The legislation, however, isn’t protecting no-one. For the most part, it aims to help migrant workers who speak little English and are completely unaware of their rights or don’t know how to report what is happening to them. In this way, it has been introduced simply to clarify criminal liability, so that the most vulnerable workers are protected from those few exploitative employers working in the UK.

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