It’s time to boost workers’ rights and end our unjust and outdated two-tier workforce
For too long, false self-employment has been used as a cover to deny workers their basic rights. The Status of Workers Bill would give the millions of long-exploited gig workers in the UK greater rights.
The gig economy has become emblematic of workers’ rights abuses in the modern economy, but that could be about to change.
Platforms like Amazon Flex and Deliveroo are using new technologies to carry out the age-old practice of worker exploitation. And these abuses are enabled, in part, by outdated legislation.
Gig workers face a two-fold challenge. Often their bosses falsely claim they are self-employed with no rights, including no right to trade union recognition. Then, even if they can prove they are workers, they still usually end up with far fewer rights than conventional employees.
But yesterday, a piece of potentially transformative legislation was tabled in Parliament, which could stamp out this injustice.
The Private Members Bill on the status of workers, brought forward by leading labour law expert Lord Hendy QC, proposes something the TUC has long called for: that a new single and broad ‘worker’ definition is adopted in UK employment law.
If passed, this could be a game changer for workers’ rights.
That’s because, right now, the UK has a two-tier workforce which affords some workers more rights than others.
The pandemic has brutally exposed the terrible working conditions and insecurity that is the daily reality for these key workers
Those with “worker” status – who often work in the gig economy – get some rights such as the minimum wage and holiday pay. But they miss out on other vital safeguards granted to those classed as “employees”.
These are protections that employees on secure contracts often take for granted, like a minimum notice period if their employment ends, protection against unfair dismissal and the right to request flexible working.
In short, Lord Hendy’s Private Members Bill would give the millions of long-exploited gig workers in the UK greater rights.
And, by placing the onus on the employer to prove a worker is ‘self-employed’ when challenged, this Bill would go some way to addressing the scam of false self-employment – representing a huge step forward. For too long, false self-employment has been used as a cover to deny workers their basic rights.
But there would still be work to do, of course. If this Bill is passed, ministers must draw on legal expertise and work closely with unions and employers to ensure that working people are not disadvantaged, those in need of protection are covered, and to accommodate future developments in the labour market.
Change is long overdue. Our legal framework on workers' rights isn’t cut out for the 21st century. Regardless of the fate of this particular Bill, now is the time to turn the dial on workplace rights.
The need for change has been brought into focus by events of the past year. Many key workers who we relied on through the pandemic, like delivery drivers and food couriers, have the reduced rights that come with the current “worker" status.
That can’t be right. The pandemic has brutally exposed the terrible working conditions and insecurity that is the daily reality for these key workers. We owe it to them to make sure we learn lessons from this pandemic and upgrade workers’ rights across the board.
And there is overwhelming public support for change. Recent TUC polling revealed that more than eight in ten (84 per cent) working people want all workers to have the same rights.
But although public appetite is there, major question marks remain over the political will of this Conservative government to boost workers’ rights.
Time and time again, this government has promised to protect and enhance workers’ rights, including in its election-winning manifesto. But so far, it has spectacularly failed to live up to its word.
Take the Employment Bill. We now know we won’t see legislation this parliamentary year, after it had first been announced over a year and a half ago in the post-2019 election Queen’s Speech.
In fact, following the Business Secretary’s public flirting with a review into EU derived workers’ rights, it appears that the government has been closer to ripping up workers’ rights than upgrading them.
And rowing back on manifesto promises to improve working conditions makes a mockery of the government’s promise to build back better.
So, our message to ministers is this. Throw your weight behind Lord Hendy’s Bill. We cannot build back better without building back fairer – that means boosting workers’ rights and ending the scourge of insecure work.
No more excuses. Ministers must stop dithering and deliver on their promise to working people. It’s time to boost workers’ rights and end our unjust and outdated two-tier workforce.
Frances O’Grady is the TUC General Secretary.