The Uber app. Photo: Pexels The Uber app. Photo: Pexels

Do the Tories really want to improve the lot of workers? Don’t be silly

Theresa May has joined the fight for workers rights. At least that’s what she’ posturing as she publishes a review of workers rights led by former Blair adviser, and RSA chief Matthew Taylor.

The report – commissioned at a time when May thought her leadership unassailable, and the parliament ahead of her long – was positioned as part of a new look Tory party apparently ready to take on ‘burning injustices’ and improve the lot of the poor.

Things look very different now. Turns out that no one bought in to any of that, and a disastrous election has left May and the Tories looking very weak and bereft of ideas. Since the result, a number of further blunders and the terrible response to Grenfell have proved just how out of touch they really are.

So the timing of this report gives it the new purpose of rebooting a failing establishment. It’s unlikely the Tories will be led by May for much longer, but whoever takes the reins, they need to look like they have something to offer, or if they can’t, then a Macron-style centrist party needs something to go on. The big problem for them is that, amidst a huge social crisis, it’s going to take a lot more than a bit of paper over the cracks to convince people. Taylor’s proposals sound clever, but change very little.

A new world of work? 

The report, and much of Taylor’s work with the RSA stands in front of a backdrop of a change in the way workers work and employers employ. It is well known that there has been a big rise in precarious work and zero-hours contracts. A big part of Corbyn’s appeal was his pledge to ban these contracts, but it is argued by many that the change in the way we work, is both inevitable and preferable. A new dawn is appearing apparently, where flexible, self-employed labour is the norm, and technology is set to take over. Uber is emblematic of this new world.

The nature of this change is debatable, but whilst often vastly overstated there is no doubt some shift in work patterns due to technological changes. Most of it however is driven by an increased marketisation, liberalisation and a decline in good secure jobs. The amount of full-time employees in the UK suddenly dropped in 2008 when the recession hit, and the percentage hasn’t risen since. But who does this new ‘flexibility’ really benefit?

A new type of worker? 

The report calls for an alternative category of worker to be created – a ‘dependent contractor’. The aim being to account for a changing world of work, and give workers more rights while allowing employers to keep the flexibility they enjoy, and also to differentiate casual labour and genuinely self-employed people. This idea is already a step behind, with Uber having lost the ability to classify workers as self-employed in October 2016.

But is there a need for a new classification? The new category would force employers to pay National Insurance and also sets up the idea that there should be a higher minimum wage for extra uncontracted hours, and a right to holiday and sickness pay. All of these things are welcome, but why not go the whole hog and raise the minimum wage more generally, force employers to guarantee more hours and regard most of these workers as what they are – workers? Then they would have these rights anyway.

The employer is the one with the power, and so pretending that these jobs provide a different level of agency is to dress them up as something they are not. There is plenty of space within current employment contracts to allow more flexibility or give more choice to the worker – the employer just has to be willing to pay them properly. They are benefitting from the profits, and so should allow employees flexibility when they need it.

One of the quite remarkable things in the report is its suggestion that a ‘dependent contractor’ wouldn’t need to be paid the minimum wage. Instead, an employer would just have to show that the average worker gets paid 1.2 times the minimum. What a load of rubbish.

A nice place to work?

There is nothing in the report about how agency work and zero-hour contracts affect full-time employees, who, with marginalised workers often taking up large parts of the workforce, lack confidence to fight for their own rights, are more easily replaced, and feel helpless in organising good practice in the workplace.

Precarious, low-paid employment all adds to a feeling of unease among all workers. Older permanent workers and younger agency staff are at loggerheads instead of working together, both in their day job, and when fighting for their rights. I saw much of this demoralisation when I was working a warehouse operative.

Taylor suggests that workers should be offered a permanent contract after a period working as an agency worker, but in the period leading up to that, agency work is always a trial period where you are in direct competition with other workers. This kind of employment just isn’t enjoyable.

Is this really flexibility?

But does the perceived flexibility benefit workers? Not really. If Uber drivers are getting below the minimum wage, then with rents costing over half their pay, they will just be using that flexibility to do more hours. The only way to deal with that would be to raise the minimum wage and wages in general. This would give people a real ability to be flexible and less servile. They could then also plan ahead in their lives and save. There is little point having high employment if people are not earning enough to live.

In terms of ‘creative types’ wanting space to do other endeavours, is it not a more reasonable aim for a starting off actor to be able to do some bar work a few days a week and also go to auditions. Rather than pack in 15 hour shifts every day for a week so they can then take a job or short break the next. Many people I know who work in this way, enjoy it to begin with, but end up very demoralised as the fulfilling jobs they want don’t materialise and they end up treading water, with little time to keep their skills up. We need to be creating more of the jobs people want and need to pull more people out of precarious employment and the gig economy, instead of encouraging more of it.

Technological progress?

It is precisely the lack of workers rights, ignoring of local regulation and various laws and taxes, that allow companies in the gig economy to expand so quickly and push others out of the market. They then use this success as an argument for liberalisation and outsourcing, also saying that it allows them to develop new technologies. But the technology can exist without the exploitation, and much of the research is done with public money, with the profits ending out in the pockets of the rich.

The whole tone of this report piece is about encouraging workplaces to treat their employees better by offering incentives. Frankly, it is the nature of the market that business cares little about this kind of stuff if it can find a way to exploit workers further. It is necessary for workplaces to drive conditions down to compete, particularly in low-wage sectors. You can’t incentivise better behaviour, you have to force it, otherwise they will always find new ways to exploit workers and make more of a profit. The heads of these companies are honest about the fact that they are making a lot of money, but pull out the old argument that the more money they are making, the more jobs they can create and the better they can pay their workers. The huge inequality in this country over recent decades proves otherwise.

A new wave of strikes?

Corbyn’s programme begins to take on these issues, but if we want to seriously move against exploitative employers, then we need to support those striking for better conditions, encourage people to join trade unions, and constantly link the questions of politics and policy to union activity and the wider fight for a better society. Nothing is to be gained by compromising with the employers on these issues. They are the cause of inequality, and cannot be part of the answer. Workers need more control, and a bigger safety net to fall into, so they have real power to negotiate for better conditions. To be honest, why do we need these managers and CEO’s anyway?

Cameron Panting

Cameron Panting was formerly National Organiser for Counterfire. He is active within the People's Assembly and Stop The War.

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