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Photo Credit: IWGB

The Workers Outsourced Will Never Be Defeated

The relationship between employer and employee has changed dramatically over the past few decades. The old model was simple - a single employer and the workforce. Workers knew who their employer was, they knew their terms and conditions and there was often a path to progression. Yet while today's employment statistics again boast near record numbers in and out of work, our models of employment are less clear cut.

According to the Trade Unions Congress, there are around 5 million UK supply chain workers who have no right to challenge their parent employer over minimum wage and holiday pay abuses. This phenomenon has become known as ‘the fissured workplace’, whereby large corporations shed their role as direct employers and outsource work to a variety of small companies who are in fierce competition with one another.

CLASS spoke to Emiliano Mellino from the union IWGB, which is bringing a case against the University of London on behalf of outsourced cleaners. He said that victory would dramatically improve workers’ rights for all 3.3 million outsourced workers. Watch the video below:

Large corporations, however, are by no means the only culprits. The ongoing furore over the collapse of Carillion grimly exposed the government’s parochial approach to public procurement while many local government bodies lay on the brink of financial collapse as a result of reckless outsourcing practices.

Not only has outsourcing proven to be extremely inefficient and costly in many cases, there are a number of ill consequences for workers themselves. As David Weil has put it, “whether the fissured workplace is associated with legitimate or illegitimate practices, employment relationships become more tenuous, responsibility for compliance with laws is shifted to other businesses and made murky, and the workforce becomes vulnerable to violations of even the most basic protection of our laws.”

To put it bluntly, workers who are outsourced or employed through some form of third-party get a bad deal. To give just one example, previous CLASS research highlighted the use of ‘pay between assignments’ (PBA) contracts that denied agency staff equal pay with their counterparts. In this particular instance, and after months of campaigning, the Communications’ Workers Union has recently reached a deal with BT to phase out these contracts from early 2019.

Yet, trade unions have traditionally struggled with fragmented workplaces. Organising workers is inherently harder when they are spread across multiple locations and sub-contractors. Further still, we know, for instance, that the gig economy workers are disproportionately younger while trade union membership is disproportionately older.

Set against a backdrop of growing insecurity of work in the UK and the US, these trends are a cause for concern. The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) is, however, hoping to change things. The new union is currently leading a legal challenge that would allow 75 outsourced cleaners at the University of London to collectively bargain with the facilities management company that hires them directly and the University itself.

The disparity between the current minimum wage and the London Living Wage is £2.37 an hour. Over the course of a standard full-time 37.5 hour working week, this equates to a shortfall of £88.88. (While this may not seem like a lot of money, it is in fact almost the entirety of the income of those in the bottom decile of the distribution after housing costs are accounted for).

This incident is the latest in a series of high profile court cases surrounding the gig economy and workers’ rights. The IWGB union have filed a number of legal cases against companies such as Deliveroo and Uber aiming to highlight their use of bogus self-employment to sidestep fundamental workers’ rights. The case of the IWGB reminds us yet again that public policy plays an important role in mitigating the relationship between capital and labour.

The current status quo, however, is one of employment law by attrition. The government has a mandate to protect workers’ rights and promote collective bargaining (as stipulated in the European Convention of Human Rights and many other international conventions), yet we hear very little about the quality of employment and more about the quantity as today’s numbers have reiterated. It’s time to change the narrative.