The review of modern working practices, by Matthew Taylor, published yesterday recommends measures to promote “good quality work for all”. FLEX finds that decent work for all prevents labour exploitation. So what does this mean, and how can we achieve it?
The Taylor review was commissioned amidst concern that the formal rights and responsibilities of employers and workers were not keeping pace with the growth and impact of new or ‘modern’ business models. FLEX has highlighted the way in which labour market flexibility puts some workers at risk by creating precarious forms of work offering low pay and extremely limited rights and protections that can prevent abuse. High-profile examples of firms such as Uber and Deliveroo has shown some workers forced into false self-employment, pressured to work long hours without decent pay, job security or rights to sick leave and holiday pay. Cases like this show that, whilst flexibility might work for many, a growing number of Britain’s precarious workforce have no safety net where it is needed most. Without this, the scope for abuse is great and the likelihood of exploitation high.
As the FLEX Labour Exploitation Advisory Group (LEAG) has shown, ongoing labour abuses can increase worker vulnerability and lead to more severe exploitation if left unchecked. For example, in low paid sectors where demand for flexible work is high, withholding wages or not paying promised rates for work can increase pressure on individual workers, making them more reliant on precarious work in order to survive. This power imbalance between employer and worker can make it difficult or impossible to complain about further abuse.
Therefore, redressing the balance in employment relationships and assuring rights such as minimum wages, minimum guaranteed hours, rights to sick pay and remedies for abuse is key to empowering the most vulnerable workers and preventing them from falling into exploitation.
Taylor’s recommendations to improve clarity around employment status are intended to ensure rights are extended to those categorised as ‘self-employed’ when, he says, they fall rather more in the middle between this status and full employment – something he seeks to call ‘dependent contractor’. Taylor recommends that the Government should more clearly outline employment status in legislation, and this emphasis on clarification is helpful insofar as confusion around status and rights can act as a barrier to claiming entitlements or knowing when rights are being abused. However, retaining the current system under which many are not afforded basic rights along with an emphasis on choice and flexibility fails to acknowledge that this choice is often not available to the most vulnerable workers, who will continue to lose out. The proposed ‘right to request’ guaranteed hours for those on zero-hours contracts, for example, places the onus squarely on the worker and is likely to mean very little for those with extremely limited bargaining power, who are reliant on insecure work and fear losing their job if they challenge their working conditions.
Employment rights are only as good as the ability to enforce them. Recommendations to provide a free determination on employment status are welcome but it is disappointing that the review does not directly tackle the larger barrier to justice that is employment tribunal fees by recommending that they be dropped. As a result, too many will continue to be excluded from accessing their rights as they are unable to afford the fees to enforce them. Resourcing labour inspectorates including the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority is another critical issue on which the report is notably silent. However, the recommendation to extend the remit of the EAS to cover umbrella companies is an important step towards greater scrutiny of the practices of these companies which have been heavily criticised by unions and workers.
The Taylor report rightly acknowledges the significant power imbalance in the workplace. However, his recommendations are heavily weighted towards information and clarification to enable the individual worker to make choices, without tackling the desperate need for enforcement. This ignores questions of what ‘choice’ the most vulnerable workers truly have and thereby denies them the few rights they have. Taylor is right to put the emphasis on good work, but the question now is whether the ripple of enthusiasm surrounding his review reaches the most marginalised and most vulnerable in our workforce. If we can achieve ‘good work’ for all, we will be well on our way towards ending exploitation.