Call me a cynic, but despite Theresa May’s claims about the Conservative’s being the real party for workers, I don’t expect employment rights to be a government priority in 2017. Yes, they are undertaking a review following the growth of the so-called gig economy, but positive change? I very much doubt it because they aren’t involving workers!
Not convinced? Well just look at their record. All the employment laws introduced by Conservative governments have been the result of European Directives (and all of these are surely now under threat following the Brexit vote). Indeed, I can’t think of any rights that they introduced of their own accord. Even their so-called living wage is actually well below the level set by the Living Wage Foundation.
But as we know, the gig economy is thriving. Globalisation, privatisation and a reduction in trade union collective bargaining have created a more compliant workforce that is flexible and insecure. Add to the equation technological change, such as the growth of online purchasing by consumers; and the winners in this increasingly faceless and un-regulated economy are the corporations, particularly in the service sector, who benefit from paying low wages and making little or no investment in skills.
Indeed, the Trades Union Congress says one in three British workers is in precarious employment, prompting this comment from their general secretary Francis O’Grady, “Gig economy workers face the double hit of poverty wages and weaker employment rights. Whether they’re waiting tables or driving for Uber, all workers deserve respect, fair pay and basic protections. But the law hasn’t kept pace with how work has changed.”
Employment status is one such example. Classing gig workers as self-employed means they have no access to employment rights such as holidays, protection from unfair dismissal, and the national minimum wage. Fortunately, the successful tribunal claim by Uber workers could change all that, although it still subject to an appeal by the company.
But it is going to take more than a successful tribunal claim to really change things for the better. If we are going to tackle the insecure nature of the gig economy then we need to empower ordinary people. On the one hand there should be laws that protect workers against exploitation; and on the other, laws enabling workers to stand up to bad employers.
This means keeping, and improving upon, existing employment rights afforded by our EU membership so that employers can’t hide behind bogus arguments about employment status. We also need to ensure access to justice is available to all; and that means ending fees for employment tribunals. Above all though, we must help workers to organise in order to improve their working conditions and access decent training. That means inviting trade unions into the workplace, engaging in meaningful dialogue, and removing the punitive laws that restrict trade union’s from speaking up for British workers.
If we do nothing, then a growing gig economy will surely result in more insecurity and low pay, and ultimately, much more inequality.