By Joseph Choonara
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Wishy-washy review won’t fix gig economy

This article is over 4 years, 11 months old
Issue 427

What has happened to employment in the modern era of the “gig economy” and “zero hour contracts”? And what should be done about it?

The Taylor Review, or “Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices” to give it its full title, was supposed to answer these questions. However, its arrival on 11 July was something of a damp squib.

“Wishy-washy” and “full of vacuous fluff,” said Jason Moyer-Lee, general secretary of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, which recently helped win a strike victory for Deliveroo bicycle delivery couriers in London, often seen as epitomising workers in the gig economy. Jeremy Corbyn called it a “huge missed opportunity”.

Even Francis O’Grady, the mealy-mouthed leader of the Trade Union Congress, opined, “It’s no secret that we wanted this review to be bolder.”

The critics are right — though maybe we should not have expected much from Matthew Taylor, who is, after all, the former head of Tony Blair’s policy unit. Worse still, a key member of the review turned out to be a former investor in Deliveroo.

Hardly surprising, then, that the recommendations strayed very little from endorsing the proposals in the submission by the bosses’ Confederation of British Industry.

That the Taylor Review happened at all reflects the pressure on even the present government to do something about bogus self-employment, zero-hours contracts and other abuses of workers that have developed in recent years.

These are a real scourge for workers. However, the scale on which these practices are used is still quite limited in the UK. About 90 percent of those who are employed remain on traditional permanent contracts in a single job — and this figure has barely changed in the past three decades.

Self-employment has grown since 2001, but only by 3 percent of the labour force — and much of this seems to be in traditionally casualised areas such as construction. If some of it involves new forms of “gig economy” work at firms such as Uber and Deliveroo it leaves little trace on aggregate data.

For many workers, the biggest attack they face is not that their relationship with their employer has become so tenuous that they risk losing their job at a moment’s notice. On average jobs in the UK can be expected to last 16 years.

It is far more likely that a worker is stuck in a job that is lousy, with declining or stagnant wages, declining levels of control of the job and increased bullying and pressure to work harder.

However, as the examples of Uber and Deliveroo show, along with the extensive use of zero-hours contracts to cut labour costs in areas such as social care, there are new abuses that ought to be confronted — and Matthew Taylor’s review fails to adequately address this.

One of its central proposals is to introduce a “new” employment status of “dependent contractor”, which is essentially a rebadging of the existing “worker” status in employment law that comes with fewer rights than that of “employee”.

But, aside from giving this status a new name, Taylor goes no further than recent employment tribunals, which have already ruled that Uber taxi drivers and Deliveroo couriers cannot be treated as self-employed contractors.

Why not end the fiction of the distinction between workers and employees altogether, as Labour proposed in its manifesto?

Already in tax law the distinction is simply between those who are employees and those who are self-employed. The “worker” status is largely a result of attempts to incorporate EU labour laws into British legislation.

It would be far better to scrap this and to simply extend full employment rights to all those who sell their labour power to a capitalist.

Taylor suggests extending “piecework” legislation to the gig economy — ensuring that workers who are contracted on a task by task basis receive on average the national minimum wage, plus a 20 percent margin for error.

However, this does not guarantee that those working at periods of “low demand” would receive the minimum wage. Consider also what happens to an Uber driver if the traffic happens to be particularly heavy in their area while they are working, limiting the number of journeys they can complete.

Taylor’s suggestion also fails to make clear how this would extend to so-called “crowdwork”, where firms such as Mechanical Work offer an international workforce a range of “microjobs” online.

In its discussion of the enforcement of existing rights for workers, the Taylor Review refuses to take a stand against fees to access employment tribunals, simply accepting that the government would never scrap them. This looked particularly feeble when, two weeks later, the Supreme Court, hardly a bastion of workers’ power, ruled that the fees were unlawful — and government ministers rushed to acknowledge that they would accept the ruling.

There was one genuinely interesting proposal in the Taylor Review. This was the idea that all hours worked above those contracted should be paid a premium rate above the national minimum wage.

If this were set at a punitive level, it would strongly discourage the use of zero-hours contracts — in which no hours are contracted — and prevent employers shifting people onto one-hour or two-hour contracts, which is the danger if zero-hours contracts are simply banned.

Unfortunately, rather than make a concrete proposal on this, the Taylor Review simply subcontracts it to the Low Pay Commission to examine.

Overall Taylor’s report is an unambitious fudge — which presumably is exactly what the government wanted from him.

If we want to challenge the genuine abuses suffered by a substantial minority of workers, we should instead learn the lesson of recent struggles by Deliveroo couriers, Uber drivers, and groups such as the caterers, cleaners and security staff at SOAS university in London who in August won their 11-year battle to end outsourcing of their jobs.

For all the attacks on our rights in the workplace, when workers fight collectively, and when they secure the support of the wider labour movement, they can win.

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