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One law for bosses who pay below minimum wage, another for the jobless

BLIND JUSTICEHer Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC), those sleuths ruthlessly tracking down tax avoiders, seem to turn the same blind eye to employers paying their workers below the national minimum wage. Some 300,000 workers have been found paid less than £6.31 an hour, yet only 2 firms have been prosecuted! This is despite the fact that over 10,750 companies have been investigated by HMRC on suspicion that they were breaking the law on low pay and that nearly £16m was collected in arrears payments and fines were imposed of more than £2m. Yet only 0.02% of these forms were taken to court. Probably about the same proportion as the number of tax avoiders who end up in court.

Ministers regularly claim that they were now naming and shaming firms that refused to pay their workers even as little as £235 a week, but just one firm has been thus named and shamed.

Contrast that with the government’s treatment of the jobless, who are now paid job-seeker’s allowance of just £71.70 a week. They contributed insurance contributions all their working lives to earn it, and unemployment benefit is the lowest anywhere in the EU, but they immediately forfeit it even for the most trivial misdemeanour in trying to get another job.

They are deprived of the scarcely subsistence level benefit they’ve earned for 4 weeks and if a similar trivial failing occurs for a second time, they lose all benefit for 3 months, so they have no option but to beg in the streets, scrounge on family or friends, or steal. It’s not as though jobs are there for the taking anyway, though the person responsible for that – one George Osborne – isn’t even charged and gets off free on £3,000 a week.

So under this government employers breaking the law face a 1 in 5,000 chance of being prosecuted, whereas a jobless person who is 5 minutes late for a job interview, or is in hospital and cannot attend for interview (and gave prior notice that this was the case), or who never received the letter telling him/her about the appointment because he/she had mover address (and again clearly told the DWP office this), is punished with the most draconian penalty – deprived of the means of independent survival. And whereas the employer has the right to be heard in court, the jobless person gets summary punishment with no right of appeal at all.

It’s not as though the government is unaware of the employers under-paying their workers. HMRC hands out almost 70 notices of under-payment every month, yet almost none are prosecuted. And it’s not as though these employers have just made a minor slip in their operations: it’s known that these employers who cheat their workers of even their minimal rights tend also to be those who break the law on trading standards or breach environmental regulations. Ed Miliband has called for increasing the fine on these employers 10-fold, and Cameron lamely and inadequately tried to counter this by putting up the fine just 4-fold. Far better, give the job of tracking down defaulting employers to local Councils and give them a sizeable cut in the fine for all those they prosecute and convict.

Image credit: igorgolovniov / 123RF Stock Photo

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