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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 November 2007, 01:06 GMT
Homeworkers 'paid below minimum'
By Kitty Jenkins
5 Live Report

Many homeworkers are being underpaid, the study says
Many of the UK's homeworkers are not being paid the national minimum wage, a study has claimed.

An estimated three million Britons work from home and the number rises each year in the run-up to Christmas.

They provide a range of services from making Christmas crackers to packing cards and stuffing envelopes.

But campaigners claim that, eight years after legislation was brought in to enforce minimum pay, many homeworkers are being underpaid and exploited.

'Unaware of rights'

The National Group on Homeworking (NGH) is compiling a report on the extent of that exploitation based on interviews with dozens of workers who have come to them for help.

The National Minimum Wage isn't really being enforced
Peter Williams, Ethical Trade Initiative

The unpublished study seen by the BBC 5 Live Report paints a grim picture.

More than half earn less than the legal basic adult hourly wage of 5.52 per hour.

But the true situation could be even worse. Very few of those contacting the NGH are from ethnic minorities.

NGH believes they make up a significant proportion of homeworkers and that many are unaware of their rights.

Yasmine (name changed), a Manchester mother of four of Pakistani origin, sews punch bags from home. At around 4 per hour, she is paid 25% below the minimum wage.

"They pay me one pound per bag and I can sew four an hour," she said.

"It is very hard because even when I am sick I don't get sick pay, so if I stop working I don't get any benefit.

"If I say I don't want to do it, they will take the work away from me."

Realistic calculations

Employers are supposed to use realistic calculations of piecework to ensure pay rates satisfy the minimum wage, but the NGH evidence suggests this often doesn't happen.

"The National Minimum Wage isn't really being enforced," said Peter Williams a labour consultant at the Ethical Trade Initiative.

"There isn't a minimum wage inspectorate.

"And because there isn't any real penalty for underpayment of the minimum wage, it really gives a green light for employers who are less scrupulous to exploit their workers."

Mr Williams highlights the government's failure to follow through a 1997 and 2000 pledge to ratify a UN Convention that would further regulate protection of home workers.

Responsibility for the minimum wage rests with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

It said: "We are determined to tackle unscrupulous employers who don't pay the minimum wage, who exploit workers and try to undercut legitimate businesses."

NGH says many homeworkers are vulnerable because they don't speak English or are also tied to home as carers.

Some have fallen victims to companies which ask them to pay money up front in return for homeworking jobs which then fail to materialise.

'No money whatsoever'

An example is Top-Star Mailshare which offers the chance for "unlimited financial freedom" in return for a 30 membership fee.

Zoe Evans, from Leeds, sent off an initial 30 payment to the company, expecting to receive work within a couple of weeks.

When the anticipated work was not offered, she contacted the company for a refund but says she was unable to get one.

"I've got no money whatsoever," said Zoe.

Christmas is coming up and it's not easy. I'm just picking myself up now after what's gone on. It's really hard."

Another worker also told the BBC she had received no work and also asked for a refund without success.

Mr Ibrahim Shevket, proprietor of Top-Star Mailshare said that he refunds anyone who is unsatisfied with the amount of work they receive.

5live Report: House Work is on Sun 11 Nov at 1135GMT or via podcast at the Five Live Report website. The programme is made by All Out Productions.

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