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Saturday 15th
posted by Morning Star in Features

The report into the ‘gig economy’ recognises some of the problems but the solutions it proposes are utterly worthless to improve conditions, writes TIM ROACHE

FOR TOO long Tory ministers have patted themselves on the back at employment figures showing fewer people on Jobseekers allowance.

This one-dimensional view ignored the growing numbers of people in work and still in poverty. It overlooked the scale of inequality, exploitation and insecurity.

In recent years, union campaigns with the support of the Labour Party helped highlight growing opposition to a bargain-basement jobs market.

This week has seen a welcome and inevitable focus on the true nature of work in Britain today. It isn’t rosy. As my members can testify, along with millions of others, work is getting tougher and less secure — pay rates are falling in real terms and risk is being transferred from cynical employers to the individual worker. Worse still, the level of employer control over workers is now at disturbing levels.

There are employers in this country who think nothing about laying off a member of warehouse staff for using their phone, bringing “contraband” such as a lip balm or refusing to be security-checked while they are eating their lunch.

The freedom of genuine self-employment has been perverted by those exercising a great deal of control. More and more company bosses are adopting Big Brother practices. It’s almost as though some have read George Orwell’s 1984 and believed it to be the latest management textbook.

We witness the indignity of people travelling all the way to work to be told by text message almost when they get there that their shift won’t now start for several hours and won’t be paid while they wait.

Workers have to fight for overtime which can be allocated by managers who can decide who is deserving and who is not. The worst employers don’t even accept the most basic obligations to the people who work for them.

Agency work has becomes the core part of some business models deliberately “keeping workers on their toes.” Zero-hours contracts offer zero certainty from one week to the next. Many who live from temporary contract to temporary contract are unable to plan their future.

At what point did getting a decent place to live or having the confidence to settle down and support a family become a luxury for working people?

Tory ministers and the Confederation of British Industry praise the “flexibility” of the current world of work, but I don’t see any of them on zero-hours contracts.

The discrimination in the labour market is magnified further when looking at who does the most insecure work in Britain.

Our analysis of the Office of National Statistics data shows that if you are black you are twice as likely to be on a zero-hours contract than if you are white. In some regions it is as high as five times more likely.

You are also more likely to be on an insecure contract if you are female, disabled, young or in in your mature working years. Reducing workplace insecurity will also help us advance equality within society.

Our polling of precarious workers shows that have suffered mental ill-health directly as a result of their job. A similar proportion have gone to work despite being ill for fear of losing pay, future hours or even their jobs.

What does that mean in practice? It’s a forklift truck driver on an agency contract working despite blinding headaches. It results in a catering worker on zero-hours contracts showing up for work even though she’s thrown up overnight.That’s bad for the worker, their colleagues and the public.

This is the stark backdrop of this week’s publication of the findings of the Taylor review. There is a welcome focus on the importance of the quality jobs but not the action required to achieve it.

We certainly must hold ministers to proposed abolition of Swedish derogation loopholes which unions such as GMB have been highlighting for years. But other recommendations fall well short of what is needed and simply don’t appreciate the huge imbalance of power in many non-unionised workplaces right now.

First, the Taylor review recognises that exploitation takes place with agency workers and those on zero-hours contracts in a vulnerable situation. Yet the proposed solution isn’t tough new regulation of agency work which even those in the industry say is overdue. The recommendation isn’t to ban zero-hours contracts either, which even a right-wing government in New Zealand has implemented following campaigning by unions. Apparently the answer in Britain is the “right to request” permanent employment after a year. Can you imagine the most vulnerable Sports Direct worker approaching Mike Ashley to ask for the dignity of a secure contract? I’m afraid I can’t.

Second, the sanctions for bad employers are weak or non-existent. The Taylor review believes companies beyond a certain size would have to publish how many “requests” they have had from agency workers and those on zero-hours contracts to have direct and permanent employment. Yet there is no sanction whatsoever for those who reject 100 per cent of requests or who design their business model around insecure work. If we could ensure good corporate behaviour from minor embarrassment alone we simply wouldn’t be in this position.

Some of these bosses that unions encounter are literally shameless. There is already no shortage of public awareness at disgraceful employment conditions either.

Third, the review allows for lower than minimum wage rates of pay during “off-peak” times for certain workers. Who decides what “off-peak” is? The employer.

There’s already not enough action in enforcing the minimum wage and would likely become even harder.

While it is welcome that some insecure workers could get higher minimum wage rates beyond their contracted hours, a few more quid in the pay packet won’t compensate for the stress or the difficulty in accessing basic financial goods and services that require a permanent job contract and guaranteed earnings.

Fourth, the report is too dismissive of laws and regulating the labour market. It concludes “the best way to achieve better work is not national regulation but responsible corporate governance, good management and strong employment relations within the organisation.”

The reality is that law and regulations are required to prevent bad practices. While employment relations are of course crucial many of these firms won’t even let unions on site.

The Tories have ensured an even greater imbalance of power in the workplace towards the employer, backed up with the Trade Union Act and extortionate employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200. There is no mention of scrapping either legislation in the report.

The fact is that millions are on insecure contracts not out of some careless oversight from the employer but because the system allows and even encourages it.

While GMB supports any individual measures that might improve conditions for members, the Taylor review was overall a missed opportunity.

In contrast, the Labour Party manifesto at the election offered an agenda for security and hope for working people including the most insecure. We must renew all our efforts to campaign for dignity at work using every tool at our disposal and bring about real change with a Labour government.

Tim Roache is the general secretary of GMB.