In the summer of 2016 Prime Minister Theresa May stood outside 10 Downing Street and announced she was committed to fighting for working people. To try and overcome the collective eye role of the British public, she followed this up a few months later with the announcement of the Taylor Review on modern employment. The review was tasked with making recommendations, among other things, on how to deal with the problem of exploitation in the so-called “gig economy”. The Tories then committed in the 2017 Manifesto to act on the review’s (as yet unannounced) recommendations.
The review’s chief, Matthew Taylor, kept the rhetoric going throughout the 10 month lifespan of the review. Brilliant at media engagement, he secured loads of press coverage even before the review issued its findings. With all of the hype around and potential of the review, its findings were even more of a slap in the face to the UK’s “gig economy” workers. For the review had two fundamental problems, as spelled out at length in the response of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB). First, it did not adequately recognise that the nature of the problem iscompanies unlawfully depriving their workers of rights, on purpose. It rather adopted the preferred company narrative of uncertainty in law being the problem. Second, it failed to call for a serious extension of employment rights to limb b workers- the employment status that most “gig economy” workers fall into. Indeed, whilst heavy on fluff, media and profile boosting, and light on concrete and effective solutions, the report’s 116 pages are likely to go down as little more than the longest peerage application in history.
It is unsurprising therefore that many of the Government’s actions following the report were equally useless. Indeed, in this week’s big announcement on the issue, the Business Secretary event went as far as to say: “The rise of new business models and employment practices have caused increasing numbers of disagreements around the employment status of individuals. This has raised concerns that some businesses may not currently be providing people with the rights they are entitled to…”
These comments make a mockery of our legal system. When a courier and a judge agree the courier is a limb b worker, and the company says the courier is an independent contractor, this is not a “disagreement”; it is the company attempting to evade its employment law obligations. When virtually every single high profile “gig economy” employment status case results in the individuals being declared limb b workers and therefore entitled to employment rights, this does not mean that these companies may not be providing people with rights, it is a definitive statement in law that they are not.
The Government’s announcement that it intends to modify the employment status definitions which have been achieving legal rights for workers time and time again, should be treated with a high degree of suspicion. Indeed, in a letter Uber sent to its drivers this week after losing the battle over workers’ rights three times in a row, Uber stated: “We will be supporting the Government’s recommendation to bring in new laws in this area to provide greater clarity to individuals and businesses who want to provide good and flexible work.” The letter also threatened drivers with reducing their flexibility, limiting their ability to work, imposing more control over them, and cutting their pay if they were made workers. Talk about sore losers!
Given that a proper Government crack down on law breaking is what’s needed, it’s even more disappointing that the Business Secretary’s proposals this week will only tweak the edges of the abysmally poor employment law enforcement regime. Importantly, most employment rights will continue to go unenforced by any state agency. And worst of all, the Government has rejected the call for higher penalties and fines for companies which breach minimum wage. Given the scant level of enforcement of this basic right, the rejection of this proposal is utterly inexcusable.
Just like other low-paid workers, and as exemplified by Addison Lee drivers at Luton Airport campaigning for union recognition and against recent pay cuts, couriers and private hire drivers are involved in industrial disputes with the companies for whom they work. They shouldn’t have to worry about enforcing their legal rights and winning their industrial disputes and campaigns on top of that. One of these jobs is clearly for the state.
In addition to offering no real change to the enforcement (or lack thereof) of existing employment law, the Business Secretary has also not offered any real upgrade in rights for limb b workers. They will still not be entitled to statutory sick pay, maternity pay, or the right to claim unfair dismissal, among other things. One of the Secretary’s headline policy announcements, that precarious workers will have a right to request a more stable contract after six months, is a poor substitute for these fundamental rights. And despite the policy being out there for several months, the Secretary still hasn’t answered the question: what happens when the employer says no?
Given that the Business Secretary, grandiose press announcements notwithstanding, has utterly failed to seriously address the two main issues in the so-called “gig economy” – enforcing the law and upgrading rights – I have this morning written a 48 page letter to MPs calling on them to propose a motion of no confidence in the Secretary, which has already gained backing from Labour. Whilst Brexit could not be more all-consuming, it is nonetheless still important for our democracy that ministers and secretaries be held accountable for their performance. And the Business Secretary’s performance is one of utter failure.