The unpaid wages project supports lawyers to develop pro bono expertise in a specific area of employment law, helping individuals in London subject to ‘wage theft’, i.e., not being paid in full for the work that they do, being denied the minimum wage, or owed holiday, sickness or notice pay.
The project also provides legal representation to individuals who are bringing a claim against their employer in the Employment Tribunal (the ‘ET’), including settlement negotiations. The economic and other impacts of the pandemic suggest that the problem of unpaid wages, particularly for the more vulnerable, may increase.
A survey of ET applications made between 2013 and 2018, published by the Government in July, demonstrated the clear advantage of representation by a solicitor: claims were more likely to settle, and a hearing more likely to be successful if a claimant had representation. Claimants who cannot afford legal representation do not have these advantages, and the project aims to redress this.
The majority of the project’s cases so far have settled favourably; some have obtained a default judgment (where the employer does not attend the hearing, and the claimant is awarded their claim); and one went to a contested hearing which resulted in a successful outcome for the client.
Clients for the project are referred to LawWorks by a diverse range of advice and community organisations across London, some working closely with vulnerable communities experiencing discrimination. For example, in the words of LAWRS (the Latin American Women’s Rights Service), “Latin American women are affected by intersectional layers of discrimination based on gender, ethnic background, and nationality/legal status.”
Discriminated-against groups are often subjected to wage theft, and may work under precarious zero hour contracts, face a ‘language barrier’, and a lack of access to legal resources. The survey of ET applications showed that claimants making unpaid wages claims are less likely to be involved in managerial roles and more likely to be in skilled trade or elementary occupations.
A client of LawWorks highlights the importance of the project’s work:
Maria, an Italian who has been living and working in the UK for several years, was employed by a cleaning company which provided cleaning services for a large department store. Initially she was asked to cover a holiday absence and was expected to work for 12 hours a day, six days a week and paid £7.50 an hour.
Once this initial period was over, the hours suddenly dropped substantially and Maria was effectively on a zero hours contract. There were long periods when she was not called to work or, if called, she arrived to find she was no longer needed. Sometimes when Maria was expected to clean three floors of large department store during a four hour shift, which was impossible during the allotted time – despite having to spend longer on the job Maria was never paid for the extra hours. The work sometimes made Maria ill, but when she took time off to recover she was never paid in lieu, and over a 12 month period Maria was underpaid every time except once; the company failed to properly record how many hours she had logged, and never made clear whether she was entitled to holiday pay.
Maria does not speak fluent English and could not afford to pay for legal advice and therefore struggled to assert her rights with her employer. The company refused to acknowledge her grievances and even told her not to speak to a lawyer. Maria was eventually referred to the LawWorks unpaid wages project where a volunteer lawyer, who had been trained by LawWorks and who spoke fluent Italian, pursued her claim for unpaid wages through the Employment Tribunal. The employer settled the case rather than face a hearing and Maria was awarded over £2,700, the total amount claimed.
Maria was grateful for the support of LawWorks and the volunteer lawyer who, she says, worked very hard on her case. However, she remains angry with the way she was treated by her former employer and worries about friends with similar issues.
LawWorks is proud to have assisted Maria. Her case demonstrates the importance of pro bono legal representation, and some of the systemic barriers workers in her position face, including her employer telling her not to seek legal advice, and her friends in similar positions feeling unable to come forward. Lawworks have taken on cases where, as a consequence of the legal assistance provided, colleagues of the client have felt enabled and confident to also make claims against their employer with multi-claim actions being taken on by the volunteer solicitors, helping to address ‘wage theft’ for disadvantaged communities.
*The client’s name has been changed to protect her identity.