WORKERS are being exploited and denied their rights with almost no effective comeback, according to consumer advocates.

Citizens Advice Scotland advisors have seen a 12 per cent increase in the number of enquiries about employment issues such as women being dismissed when pregnant, workers denied sick pay or paid holidays, or being paid less than the national minimum wage. They also say low pay and zero hours contracts are leaving increasing numbers of employees facing poverty even though they are working.

Although many of the practices highlighted in a new report from CAS are illegal, workers struggle to obtain justice, the charity says, because of barriers to challenging bad bosses.

Many fear to speak up in case they lose their jobs, while those who do want to go to an industrial tribunal face off-putting fees of up to £1,200. Meanwhile even if they win their case at a tribunal, only 42 per cent get all the money they are entitled to and only 50 per cent receive any of the awards they are due.

The findings are highlighted in a submission from CAS to the Scottish Parliament's Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, which is currently holding an inquiry into work, wages and wellbeing.

They show that the most common cases dealt with in Citizens Advice Bureaux relate to low pay or with-held wages, as well as unfair dismissal, bullying, exploitation, racism and discrimination.

Fees introduced in 2013 for employment tribunals have led to an 81 per cent decline in the number of cases, and employees feel unable to challenge unfair treatment.

CAS spokesman Rob Gowans said: “Workplace problems are increasing in Scotland. What our report shows is the collected evidence of all the work-related cases that people have brought to the Scottish CAB service over the last few years.

"Our evidence shows real-life experience. There is a growing crisis of low pay and poor conditions in Scotland."

He said the recession had encouraged bad employment practices with employees putting up with bad jobs for fear of losing them, and workers accept radical changes to pay and hours rather than face a tough labour market. Some employers have tried to cut corners and slash costs, in order to stay afloat, he said.

“Around half of Scots who are in poverty are actually working. This reflects the fact that the minimum wage is not in fact keeping up with inflation, and many of the benefits that are meant to supplement low wages are being cut. Families are becoming trapped in poverty, less secure terms and working hours, and with basic employment rights becoming harder to enforce.

“The second part of the problem is that too many rogue employers are using this environment to exploit their workers, and deny them basic rights. The growth in zero hours contracts has become a huge problem, which leaves thousands of Scots in huge financial uncertainty."

Marjory Hooper, of Inverness, contacted her local CAB after her employer closed a nursery business, leaving her and her colleagues jobless without warning. When she requested redundancy pay, she was offered £500 to go quietly. Instead she took her employer to a tribunal where she won £1,500, which she is now being paid. "I wasn't letting him line his pockets with my money," she said. "I don't think it's right if people have entitlements that it should be kept from them."

CAS is calling for the Scottish Government to remove fees for employment tribunals as soon as possible when powers to do so are handed over under the Smith agreement on greater devolution. Ministers should also explore a range of options for enforcing tribunal decisions more effectively, Mr Gowans said.

Meanwhile the UK Government should increase efforts to enforce payment of the National Minimum Wage and review cuts to tax credits and the benefit system.

“While we are pleased the committee is focusing on these issues, we want to stress the urgency. People deserve a fair wage and decent working conditions. We are calling for action by both the UK and Scottish governments,” Mr Gowans said.

The Scottish Parliament's Economy Energy and Tourism Committee launched its inquiry in June, saying one of the issues members wanted to examine was the impact of low pay and zero hour contracts on the wider Scottish economy.