Vulnerable workers need more effective voice at work

Issue date: 06 May 2008

Vulnerable workers. Vulnerable, low paid workers accounting for two in every five of the UK workforce are at risk of suffering ongoing unfair treatment by employers with little chance to resolve serious problems according to a research report released today, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council .

In an innovative study by Professor Anna Pollert from the Bristol Business School at the University of the West of England and Dr Andy Charlwood of York Management School, University of York, it has emerged that better access to unions is desperately needed to ensure that vulnerable low paid workers do not fall victim to exploitation because they do not have the clout to fight grievances and unfair treatment.

These findings are timely and back up evidence reported today by the TUC's Commission on Vulnerable Employment that calls for an end to exploitation at work.

'The Unorganised Worker, Routes to Support, Views on Representation', supported by the Economic and Social Research Council is a survey of 500 non-unionised, low paid-workers from across the UK who were asked how they dealt with problems at work. The report findings show that being without union support and working for low-pay provides a clear definition of vulnerability.

The study estimates that about half British workers suffer problems at work. The survey of the low-paid, non-unionised among them found that over a third suffered from problems with their pay, work relations (primarily stress and management bullying), and workload, with over a quarter also having problems over job security and working hours. The authors say 'these problems indicate a working environment for between a fifth and a quarter of vulnerable, non-unionised workers of work intensification and management bullying. Just over half of respondents also felt that one or more of their problems were an infringement of their rights'.

Anna Pollert explains, “We found that these workers suffer multiple problems. A surprising finding is that vulnerable workers do not just give up or leave their job when they have problems. The vast majority (86%) try to resolve them at work, mostly informally with managers, with few using the formal grievance procedures (12%) or going to outside agencies, such as Citizens Advice (9%). Most worryingly, half have no results to their efforts and only 16 per cent have a satisfactory conclusion.

“The study shows that vulnerable workers have a very poor success rate in trying to resolve problems at work. While all the surveyed workers were non-unionised, half felt that a union would have helped them with their problem and 40 per cent felt that they would join a union as a result of their problem. A significant further finding was that a quarter had tried joining others with similar problems to find joint solutions together, which shows that collectivism remains a strong feature of working life. But the current system of mainly non-unionised, individual employment relations is routinely not delivering dispute resolution effectively.”

The survey findings have added urgency in view of the government's publication in 2006 of its employment strategy paper, Success at Work, in which it stated its commitment to protecting 'vulnerable workers' and its setting up of a Vulnerable Worker Enforcement Forum in June 2007.

Non-unionised workers form 70 per cent of the workforce and low paid (earning below median pay) non-unionised workers account for two in every five workers – not a small minority on the periphery of the labour force.

Anna Pollert concludes, “I think the report provides demonstrable evidence that vulnerable work applies to a vast section of the UK labour force. Unions need to make themselves more accessible to vulnerable workers by actively seeking to represent a wider selection of the workforce through better awareness of the benefits to their services. This survey points to the need for greater union organisation in the workplace. Workers try hard to solve difficulties, but left to cope with grievances unsupported and isolated, their vulnerable workers' problems are all too easily ignored and unsolved.”


Editor's notes

The full report can be read at

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research which impacts on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2008/09 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at

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