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Whenever I do investigative reporting on companies that mistreat their workers, someone usually asks, “Well why don’t they just leave? No one forced them to work there, did they?” Perhaps lacking empathy, but it’s actually a very Good question. The answers can reveal a lot about the way the economy works (and doesn’t work).

Sometimes the reasons are obvious. These workers may be in the country illegally, owe debts that recruiters must repay, or be tied to employers under the terms of their visas. And then there’s macroeconomics: when unemployment is high, people don’t necessarily have better options.

But other times, the question is harder to answer. Take the UK, for example, where the unemployment rate (until the latest change in data) was at its lowest level in almost 50 years. Despite this, a report from the Low Pay Commission, an independent body that advises the government on minimum wages, stated that suggestion Illegal underpayments to workers continued. The LPC estimates based on official statistics that more than 300,000 (roughly one in five) minimum wage workers will be underpaid in 2022 – a similar proportion to the previous year.

When the LPC looked at longitudinal data from 2012 to 2019, it found that one in three low-wage workers remained low-paid the following year. Figures from HMRC suggest the same phenomenon. Of the 251 recent cases where employers were “named and shamed” for underpaying a worker, 43 involved underpayments lasting two years or more.

So why do people put up with bad jobs even though – at least on paper – they don’t have to? For the LPC, which holds regular meetings with employers and workers across the country, the answer is often fear. “When you talk to workers about redeployment, you can really see the whites of people’s eyes, they’re really stressed out,” LPC secretary David Massey told me.

For many people, the fear is that the next job will be worse, or won’t last. In the UK, building job security takes time. Paternity leave, maternity leave and paternity pay are only available after 26 weeks; protection against unfair dismissal is only available after two years. It can also take time to determine a stable shift pattern that works for your childcare and other responsibilities.

In low-paid jobs where zero-hours contracts are prevalent, hours may not be determined by the contract but by your relationship with your manager.As one hotel worker quoted in the LPC report said: “You have to work hard again. Hopefully you will get adequate, decent working hours.” In 2017, the Government Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service said “repeatedly” I received calls from workers who were worried that their working hours would be “reset to zero.”

The inaccessibility and cost of local transportation also played a role. Minimum wage workers are more likely to walk or take the bus to work than others, but this may limit the jobs available.one analyze For example, a survey of Greater Manchester from 2018 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the typical time to travel to Manchester Airport on public transport is to catch the 6am service Five times that of a car.

Then there is the welfare system. Any change in income can change the amount of Universal Credit, sometimes in unpredictable ways.Ending up on unemployment benefits is financially painful: UK unemployment benefits are lowest among OECD countries, in terms of the share of prior income they replace. The system also imposes 90-day sanctions on people who leave without “justifiable reasons” – illegal underpayment of wages does count as a valid reason, but other issues do not necessarily.

An example from the official benefits guide “decision maker“Teresa left at the end of the month because she felt the pay cut was unfair and said she would find it difficult to pay all the bills on a lower salary. The complainant has no good grounds. “

Massey believes the cumulative effect of all this will be that the UK labor market is less flexible than it seems, at least at the bottom level. “Our experience has been to sit in a room full of workers and say, ‘This is a huge risk, I can’t move jobs’; and then sit in a room full of employers and say, ‘We can’t find anyone.’ ,” Messi said. “It’s not a good thing for anyone if this end of the labor market is filled with fear and worry.”

In other words, policies that provide people with more security in terms of predictable schedules and employment rights do not necessarily lead to less flexibility. In fact, they may just have the opposite effect.

sarah.oconnor@ft.com

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