On launching Matthew Taylor’s Employment Practices in the Modern Economy report on the gig economy and workers’ rights, the Prime Minister said, “we will always be on the side of hard workers and good employers”. Yet twelve months to the day since the Taylor report was published, the Government have dismally failed to turn these fine words into action, leaving workers at the mercy of bad employers while good employers endure a competitive disadvantage to unscrupulous businesses. The Government need to act to show that they will protect workers’ rights and end abuse by unscrupulous employers.
The flurry of employment tribunals and court cases brought by workers and their trade unions on bogus self-employment in recent months show that a change in the law to protect workers is chronically overdue. Uber, Hermes, CitySprint, Pimlico Plumbers and Addison Lee have all been found to have been bogusly labelling their workers as ‘self-employed’ to dodge paying holiday, sick pay and National Insurance and to avoid granting the employment rights their staff should be entitled to. But rather than face the writing on the wall and begin treating their staff properly, these companies have resorted again and again to further legal action as they march on to the next court or tribunal in the hope that their poor business practices will be found legal. Companies with deep pockets cannot keep taking this route to avoid their responsibilities to their staff – the Government must act to change the law.
Of course, these businesses, and others like them, are always keen to argue that their workers are, in fact, self-employed entrepreneurs, simply being helped along by the platforms that Uber, Deliveroo and others provide. The reality is somewhat different, to say the least. When the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and Work and Pensions Committee looked at this, we found instead that many workers are struggling to earn the minimum wage and that they lack the freedoms that a genuinely self-employed person would have to change this.
There is a huge asymmetry here. All the risks are being taken by the workers, with very little of the reward. For these workers taking part in the everyday economy, where they might be delivering people or packages, repairing homes or providing meals, the risk lies entirely with them. These workers are not only, in effect, on a piece rate for the tasks they undertake, but they are putting up the capital too. Their fee for each journey taken or delivery made needs to cover the cost of their vans, scooters or cars, their fuel, their insurance, their maintenance. Only then, whatever is left is their pay. Meanwhile, the platforms they are working for are setting all the rules, taking their cut and carrying none of the risk.
These platforms are not without their benefits. They do allow workers to access huge numbers of potential consumers, and their flexibility means many who work using digital platforms are happy to do so, working when they like, combining a range of roles, or managing their caring responsibilities. The changes proposed by the Taylor Review, and in the report produced by the BEIS Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee in November last year, would not hamper this flexibility, but would provide certainty where it is needed and move the scales so that workers get more rights and power. It would ensure that working people are clear on their contracts and their rights, that they would be know how much they would be working, and that their jobs and pay were secure, including when ill or when taking a holiday or day off. Yet the Government, in the face of Matthew Taylor’s conclusions and the overwhelming evidence heard by the BEIS and Work & Pensions Select Committees has still failed to act in the interests of working people.
The call for good work cannot be ignored. Public and political pressure has begun to make an impact. Uber has introduced driver hours limits and new safety features, while DPD have given their workers a choice between being a worker or being self-employed. These are welcome moves, but come only after trade union campaigns by the GMB amongst others, regulators stepped in or the media highlighted cases of workers who had suffered tragically because of the ways they were required to work.
The growing number of successful tribunal cases and failed appeals show that the law is being abused. We cannot rely on a vague hope that unscrupulous businesses will start to treat their workers fairly. Instead, we must strengthen the law in favour of responsible businesses. The Government has had a year to demonstrate it will stand up for working people and for good employers by bringing forward a Bill to implement the key recommendations of the Taylor Review but it has failed to do so. The Government has no excuses left. Lack of Parliamentary time? Westminster has hardly any legislation to scrutinise. Lack of cross-party support? MPs from across the House welcomed Matthew Taylor’s report and the cross-party BEIS and Work and Pensions Committees recommended a way forward. On the anniversary of the Taylor report, the Government needs to finally deliver on its warm words to make work fairer and support good business by urgently bringing forward proposals to give working people control over their lives.
Rachel Reeves is the Labour MP for Leeds West and chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee