Workers’ Rights Bill Could Tilt Scales Away from Bad Bosses
If you wanted to devise a system of employment rights that handed power to unscrupulous employers at the expense of low-paid insecure workers, the UK one is pretty much ideal.
It combines complexity, huge scope for employers to devise sham arrangements, and inadequate and time-consuming routes for workers to enforce their rights.
MPs have been presented with an opportunity to shift the scales back towards workers.
This week, the Status of Workers Bill devised by Labour peer and leading labour lawyer, Lord Hendy QC, is being presented to the House of Commons.
Action is badly needed.
The TUC calculates that 3.6 million people are in insecure work: on zero-hours contracts (ZHCs), in temporary or seasonal work, or are self-employed workers earning less than the national minimum wage.
Maybe memories of the Clap for Carers – when people showed their appreciation for the work of the care workers, delivery drivers and shop workers who kept society running despite their own insecure work situation – are fading.
But this problem isn’t going away simply because worker shortages and strong union action are leading to pay wins in some areas.
TUC polling shows that huge numbers of workers have had their terms and conditions downgraded during the pandemic, often due to bullying fire-and-rehire tactics.
The Resolution Foundation reported this week that a third of 18-34 year-olds who had returned to work after a jobless spell during the pandemic were in “atypical work”, such as zero- or variable-hours contracts.
Rather than ensuring that post-pandemic jobs have secure conditions and fair pay, we seem to be repeating what happened after the 2008 financial crisis when insecure work soared.
The UK’s system broadly has three types of status: the self-employed with effectively no rights, the worker (also known as limb (b) worker) with limited rights, and the employee with full rights.
Those in insecure work, including many in the gig economy such as drivers and food delivery workers, face a two-fold challenge.
It is not uncommon for unscrupulous employers to tell zero hours contract and agency workers that they have no rights – even though the legal reality may be very different.
Or they may insist, falsely, that those who do work for them are self-employed.
Then, even if they can prove they are so-called limb (b) workers, they still end up with far fewer rights than conventional employees.
As a result, they can be hired and fired at will. They miss out on parental rights, so find it difficult to balance work and family life and are not entitled to redundancy pay if work dries up.
This leaves many vulnerable to exploitation and allows bad employers to undercut good ones.
We cannot build back better without building back fairer – that means boosting workers’ rights and ending the scourge of insecure work.
Thanks to several union-backed cases, many workers in the gig economy and beyond are successfully asserting their rights in courts and tribunals.
But more fundamental reform is needed.
The Status of Workers Bill would give the millions of insecure workers in the UK greater rights by creating a single category of worker with the same rights.
And, by placing the onus on the employer to prove a worker is ‘self-employed’ when challenged, this Bill would help to tackle false self-employment.
It also addresses the abusive use of personal service companies to secure workers’ services.
If the 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 that future developments in the labour market are accommodated.