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We must crack down on the scourge of unpaid work

4 min read

The use of exploitative unpaid trials is still far too common. It’s time for the government to get a grip and ban the practice outright – no ifs, no buts, writes Stewart McDonald

Nearly a year on from the debate on my Bill that aimed to ban unpaid work trials the practice continues to blight our employment sector.

This was a Bill that I really believed could change lives, particularly those just about managing, which is why it was so galling to see it talked out last year, and why it is so important we keep pushing this issue at the debate table.

The Prime Minister has previously said there is already a legal position in relation to the payment of the national minimum wage and ensuring that people are paid for the work that they do. Then, during the 2018 budget, the Chancellor said that “work must always pay”. But we know that is still not happening.

Whilst the government has given warm words – there is still a culture of unpaid internships and unpaid trials that persists across these islands.

A study, Unpaid Britain (November 2017), by Middlesex University and the Trust for London, also estimated that workers are missing out on £3bn in wages with the “episodic” theft of unpaid trial shifts contributing towards this.

I’ve pressed and pressed the government on this issue, and have written to some of the major businesses across these islands seeking assurances that they do not play their part in such unfair practices – though, unfortunately, I’ve had it confirmed to me that some do.

The government has been unable to tell me how many people are being asked to complete unpaid work trials, how much money – if any – has been recouped from HMRC as a result of unpaid work trials, and said unpaid work trials are “permissible” as part of a recruitment process.

The culture of unpaid work is a scourge on society and, the UK government must show more willingness to tackle this exploitative practice.

The new guidance on unpaid work trials that the government recently included in their “Calculating the Minimum Wage” publication is a welcome start, but the stark reality is that workers will continue to miss out on pay for the work they do.

The document states that unpaid work trials are permissible as part of a “genuine recruitment process”, and trials lasting longer than one day should be paid, expect in exceptional circumstances. But the guidance, which is not legally binding, is too vague in protecting workers should they fall victim to unpaid trials.

Unpaid work will continue to be a blight on the employment sector and the UK government has to get a grip and make it clear that this practice should be banned outright – no ifs, no buts.

Public opinion remains firmly against these exploitative practices. A poll by YouGov, just before my Bill was heard, showed 2/3 of the public were against unpaid work trials, and a petition calling for an end to these practices reached over 140,000 signatures. I stand firmly with the public on this issue.

I am still of the view that we need to tighten current legislation to end exploitative, unpaid trial shifts for workers.

I shall definitely be making that point in the upcoming debate, but I shall also be urging the government to take action.

The government should support a ban on unpaid trials, and, at the very least, invest further in preventative measures so that HMRC can closely monitor and clamp down on employers who exploit workers.

We should all be doing what we can to combat this exploitative and outdated practice. I’ve said it all along the past year – a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay.

Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South. The Westminster Hall debate on unpaid work trials is on Tuesday 5th February at 4.30pm.

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