Insecure workers and protection: the case for cautious optimism about 2017

We can say with a depressing degree of confidence that 2017 isn’t going to be a good year for workers’ wages. But might that bad news be at least partially offset by some progress in relation to worker protection — particularly for the self-employed and those working in the so-called gig-economy?

There are, of course, good reasons for scepticism. It is all too easy to make the case that the structural factors that bear down on many low paid workers — power imbalances with employers, new tech, no training, little representation and so on — will persist and possibly worsen in the year ahead. But the debate about work — its quality, rather than just the quantity of it — is shifting. So let’s finish the year on a brighter note — with a glass that is half-full — and point to some potential sources of progress.

First, the courts. This time last year my bet on the year ahead was that it would see a major debate about the whole issue of employment classification within the gig economy (and beyond). Well, next year could well be the moment when the law — or more accurately the application of existing law by the courts and tribunals in changing circumstances — is firmed up. In addition to the appeal by Uber, the cases brought by the IWGB union on behalf of couriers should reach a resolution, and it’s a racing certainty that other cases will follow. If (still a big if) these verdicts broadly fall into line with that of the initial Uber case then the implications for the ‘gig-economy’, alongside traditional self-employment, will be genuinely far-reaching. This isn’t to say that all these businesses will suddenly seek to redesignate ‘contractors’ as ‘employees’ and start paying them the minimum wage. Some may, many won’t. But those employers that opt not to would need to change management practices and reduce the degree of control they seek to exercise over those who are supposed to be self-employed. It’s also the case that as ‘gig’ type employers face greater labour disruption, not least via ‘wildcat strikes’ by disgruntled contractors, they might start to see the appeal of the legal protections that govern industrial disputes involving directly employed staff.

Second, there are possible policy shifts on the horizon. The independent review commissioned by Theresa May, led by Matthew Taylor, looking at the changing nature of employment creates a promising vehicle for fresh thinking on worker protection. It provides a rare opportunity to chart a course towards a coherent legal and fiscal framework, not least governing self-employment, that moves us on from the current mess of perverse tax incentives, legal uncertainty on employment status, and ‘rights’ that aren’t enforced. It will need to be careful not to dwell exclusively on the zeitgeisty issues posed by the rise of online working: the most acute forms of workplace abuse in Britain today are often ‘traditional’ in nature. Nor can it duck the tax distortions that encourage bogus self-employment. Even if it gets all this right we don’t, of course, know how the government will respond (and recall the PM’s recent reversal on workers on boards, so let’s not get carried away). Nonetheless, the Taylor Review has the potential to be a standout moment.

Third, unions together with civil society, might show new initiative in reaching those at the sharp end of the jobs market. They certainly need to: there are all too few examples of innovation in how the workforce is organised and represented. The backdrop is steadily declining union membership rates: among those in their late twenties membership rates are currently 18 per cent compared to 27 per cent two decades ago (so it is welcome that the TUC are planning to trial new models of organisation). There are huge inequalities between private and public sectors, high and low earners and older and younger workers. Consider this: someone who is aged over fifty in a high-paid role in the public sector is now more than 25 times as likely to be in a union than someone under-30, in the private sector and on low pay. This chasm in representation is one of the starkest — and most overlooked — generational and occupational inequalities in contemporary Britain.

The hope here — and it is probably no more than that — is that 2017 brings with it some new points of light. One is that the big unions build on the victories scored over the last year — such as Unite over Sports Direct, the GMB over Uber, and Unison over various care providers — and start to reach further into the insecure workforce. Another is that we are see more verve from within the union sector via new entrants like IWGB as well as established small unions like Community who are radically rethinking their role. Finally, civil society could start to step-up and back workforce innovation, drawing inspiration from the US and elsewhere. An example is the launch of the ‘WorkerTech’ partnership between the Resolution Trust and Bethnal Green Ventures which will develop and launch civic ventures in 2017 using tech to bolster the low-wage workforce.

Over the last generation the labour movement has been stagnating. That isn’t about to suddenly turn around. Yet in 2016 the issue of the quality, security and dignity of work — particularly in the low-paid service sector — moved into public consciousness. It creates an all too rare moment of opportunity: the year ahead could see legal, policy and organisational shifts that help secure at least some advances for labour. It’s a possibility that needs to be seized.

A version of this blog appears in the new edition of Juncture

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