Hospitality: A high-risk industry for labour exploitation

11 March 2021

Hospitality. Think hotels, hostels, restaurants, bars, take-out, catering and all sorts of events.

Pre-pandemic, the hospitality industry was the 3rd largest employer in the UK, and employed 10% of people across the globe. That makes it a pretty labour-intensive sector.

Unfortunately, hospitality is also a high-risk sector for labour exploitation.

This short blog explains why.

What is labour exploitation?

Labour exploitation exists on a continuum – from poor employment practices (eg employers not providing sick pay) to forced labour and modern slavery.1 In all cases, the dignity of the worker is diminished for the employer’s gain.

Exploitation will most commonly occur on the left side of this spectrum as a result of negligence or employers cutting corners to improve their bottom lines. But the UK is not absent of forced labour -there are likely thousands of victims in the UK.2

Why is hospitality particularly high-risk for labour exploitation?

Hospitality is an integral part of the UK economy – it enables exploration of cities and the regions, delivers food right to your doorstep and provides a varied setting for all types of social activity.

As for all service-based industries, there exists the possibility of labour exploitation given the labour-intensive nature of the work. But hospitality is particularly at risk due to systemic issues which produce negative outcomes for workers. These issues (and subsequent outcomes) include:

  1. Complex operating models breed a lack of accountability for worker welfare
  2. Market pressures lead to unfair employment practices
  3. The high proportion of ‘low-skilled’ jobs attract more vulnerable workers

Sexual exploitation is an additional risk in the sector, especially for hotels who may be unwitting hosts to traffickers using their rooms for exploitation.

Complex operating models breed a lack of accountability for worker welfare.

The hospitality industry:

  • Sub-contracts and uses agency labour which fragments employment relationships.
  • Is heavily franchised, so brand, owner and operator may be distinct, with little interaction.
  • Has minimal regulatory oversight. For example, licensing is not required for service suppliers (eg housekeeping), and there is no dedicated labour inspection system in place.

Outcome: Worker welfare is not prioritised and often ignored. Firms can be completely ignorant to the problem of labour exploitation; unaware of how to spot it and with no mechanisms to remedy it. This creates the space for emboldened managers, supervisors, and sub-contractors exploiting workers for professional or personal gain, unafraid of audit, oversight and retribution.

Market pressures lead to unfair employment practices

The sector is labour intensive. The markets for accommodation and restaurant and food delivery services are extremely competitive. And seasonal work requires a fluctuating number of employees. In response to these market pressures, firms have consistently pushed to reduce wages while increasing flexibility in contracts. The result? Unfair practices such as:

Outcome: Hospitality firms can become blind to the risks associated with their employment practices. For example, a cheap third-party cleaning sub-contract to the contractor may represent a situation of exploitation for a housekeeper coerced to work beyond their scheduled hours, to complete an unreasonable quota of rooms with no paid overtime and no mechanisms for redress.

The high proportion of ‘low-skilled’ jobs attract more vulnerable workers

Nearly half of the jobs available in the hospitality industry are ‘low-skilled’3, have long hours and are subject to high competition. Shift and night work is common, as is temporary and part-time work which is overwhelmingly done by women. 24% of the hospitality and tourism sectors’ workforce are migrants, who often have less knowledge of their rights as local workers and no support network.

Outcome: Many workers feel there is no alternative to their current situation even if the conditions are exploitative. Workers at highest risk of exploitation have a below average application rate for taking cases to employment tribunals, and this silence and fear is what exploiters rely on.

Moving forward

Covid-19 will increase the risk of exploitation as greater flexibility will be sought by firms hedging their bets against another pandemic-type event. There will be fewer jobs and many candidates desperate for work. Post-Brexit immigration policy will limit the legal right to work of EU citizens looking for ‘low-skilled’ jobs, increasing their vulnerability to irregular migration and exploitation.

But ethical hospitality firms can take action:

  1. Transparently disclose incidents and risks of modern slavery
  2. Vet suppliers before entering into contractual relationships and consider if prices are unrealistically low.
  3. Engage directly with workers and trade unions and learn from their experiences
  4. And use the Shiva Foundation Stop Slavery Blueprint.
1 The International Labour Organisation defines forced labour as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.” It is the most common form of modern slavery.  
2 Case studies in the UK suggest that common experiences include workers paying large ‘recruitment’ fees to obtain employment leading to debt bondage, contract deception and the withholding of worker ID documentation. 
3 The UK Government Migration Advisory Committee’s definition of ‘low-skilled’ jobs encompasses ‘elementary administration and service occupations.’ These jobs, at most, require competence derived from longer form on-the-job training and a general education acquired by age 16. This is not to say that the workers in these jobs are low-skilled.  


By George Ritchie


Looking for help?

If you are looking for help, want to report a suspicion or are seeking advice,
call the Modern Slavery Helpline on

08000 121 700

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