Last week the Taylor review of modern employment practices released its findings to great fanfare. Intended to address, among other things, the widespread deprivation of employment rights in the gig economy, the review’s recommendations fell far short of expectations.
At the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain we have long argued that the fundamental problem is the lack of enforcement of existing law, and so we call for three main policies: rigorous government enforcement of employment law, with punitive fines to deter unlawful behaviour; the abolition of employment tribunal fees, which have caused a near 70% decline in cases; and access to employment rights currently enjoyed only by “employees” for all “workers”. Needless to say, our 64-page response to the Taylor review was not supportive of its outcomes.
For a start, we had a problem with the panel. There were four members, one was an employment solicitor from a corporate law firm which advises employers on industrial relations, and, according to the Financial Times, another was a former Deliveroo investor who didn’t sell his stake in the company until four months after the review began. This wasn’t offset by any trade union or worker representation, and Matthew Taylor refused to meet with us one-to-one to discuss our proposals.
Additionally, we feel that the review had an inaccurate understanding of the law as it currently stands. From the suggestion that “workers” are not a category of self-employed, to the suggestion that employers are normally required to make national insurance contributions on behalf of workers and not just employees, the report is replete with legal errors.
When one looks at the actual recommendations, it is full of vacuous fluff and light on substantive proposals. Indeed, some of the recommendations are so wishy-washy, it would be entirely feasible for government to “implement” them without any discernible impact on the workers they are designed to help, and certainly without any concrete improvement in workers’ lives – for example the recommendation that government departments “explore ways of supporting and incentivising local authorities, particularly city regions and combined authorities, to develop integrated approaches to improving health and wellbeing at work”. Given that Theresa May seems intent on using the review to claim the pro-worker mantle for the Tories, providing her with a number of policies she could implement with little cost to government, little burden on employers, and no tangible impact on workers would help the Tory narrative and do nothing to serve the supposed aim of the report.
It is important to note, however, that some of these proposals could also be feasibly implemented in a way that does have a positive impact. There just isn’t enough substance or detail to really venture much of an opinion either way.
And there are plenty of recommendations that won’t make much of an impact at all. Eliminating tribunal fees for employment status hearings, but keeping the fees for workers who want to assert any of the rights associated with their newly declared status, will achieve little. And while the proposal to reverse the burden of proof in employment status claims may sound great to a lay audience, it would make little difference in practical terms. Similarly, the call for more detail on employment categories to be included in primary legislation is not worth the paper it’s written on – it’s not as if the reason employers misclassify their workers is that they are unaware of the relevant law. A problem not caused by confusion will not be solved by clarity. And the one that tops the list: giving zero-hours workers a “right” to request a permanent contract but no remedy if the employer says no.
There are a few good ideas buried in the fluff – extending statutory sick pay and the right to statements of employment particulars to “workers”. And there are other ideas that have potential but are so inexcusably devoid of detail that assessing their likely impact is a near impossibility, such as extending government enforcement to cover holidays and implementing a higher minimum wage for non-guaranteed hours.
But there are some truly horrendous ideas as well, the worst one being introducing piece rate legislation for the entire gig economy, which would allow employers not to have to ensure every individual working for them earns the minimum wage so long as they could demonstrate that the average worker, working averagely hard, would earn 120% of the minimum wage. This would be a dream come true for the likes of Uber, and a massive step backwards, as the current state of the law is that Uber drivers are entitled to the minimum wage for the time they work. And thus the ultimate irony: the review, which took over 10 months to deliver a damp squib, largely devoid of useful substance, has the audacity to comment on an Uber driver’s productivity.
There is no substance on how enforcement might be effective in practice, and proposals to increase rights for workers and reduce tribunal fees are extremely timid. Couriers, food delivery workers and private hire drivers must continue the fight for their rights, as this review has woefully under-delivered.
Jason Moyer-Lee is general secretary of the IWGB union