Hospitality is the UK’s fifth largest industry, directly employing more than 2.4 million people and contributing over £34 billion in gross tax revenues.1 London is the key UK destination for both foreign and domestic visitors attracting 26 million overnight visits in 2010 when tourism receipts for London totalled £11.2 billion2.

A significant proportion of the industry’s workforce is supplied by agencies and many are migrant workers. Low-skilled migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to various forms of abuse due to lack of knowledge of their employment rights, limited English language skills and little or no access to training and support networks. Excessive fees, debt servicing, and wage deductions can often lead to debt bondage which entraps migrant workers within circles of abuse. These factors mean that migrants, along with other vulnerable workers, frequently lack the leverage or knowledge that would allow them to assert their basic rights. They are vulnerable to exploitation in both recruitment and employment practices.

The UK Government estimates that there are around 5,000 victims of trafficking in the UK at any one time. Of those trafficked for forced labour, many are in industries where workers have been identified as particularly vulnerable, such as in the hospitality sector.

Despite the efforts by some in the sector to improve worker protection, exploitative practices can be found throughout the hospitality industry. They are particularly apparent when workers are recruited via agencies and in outsourced operations.

The use of agencies in most hotel operations is common. However agencies supplying services and workers to the industry are subject to far less vigorous enforcement of employment regulation than in some other sectors, for instance agriculture and food processing, where employment law and workplace regulation is rigorously enforced by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. Where such governance gaps exist, it inevitably creates a difficult operating arena for business, with law-abiding, efficient business being undercut by unscrupulous and illegal operators.

The new UN-endorsed global standard on business and human rights3 applies to all companies and the hospitality sector, like all others, needs to understand its implications and seek to implement human rights best practice in their operations. Where conditions for exploitation of workers exist, it is the duty of all responsible and law-abiding businesses to undertake comprehensive and effective due diligence including on their supply chains for labour and other outsourced operations.

The impact of the global recession has been keenly felt by many business sectors and the hospitality industry faces many challenges. As the spotlight falls on London for the 2012 Olympic Games, the hospitality industry will find itself subject to increased media and civil society scrutiny. For a customer facing business it is vitally important that the reputation of UK hotels is maintained both with the general public and national and local government. Ensuring best practice with regard to recruitment and employment of staff and agency workers can help deliver a sustainable future for the industry.

  1. Source – British Hospitality Association.
  2. Source – London Councils.
  3. UN Guiding Principles – Protect, Respect Remedy Framework.

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