05:27, May 29 305 0 theguardian.com

2017-05-29 05:27:03
Workers have few rights in the ‘gig economy’. One party has answers for that

Few aspects of employment have generated more buzz recently than the “gig economy”. This sector is characterised by companies cloaking themselves in the aura of innovation and hiding behind a facade of technological ingenuity, while classing their workers as “independent contractors” in order to avoid providing them with the most basic of employment rights, such as paid holidays and the minimum wage. A spate of recent employment tribunal claims – the majority of which were brought by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) – have shown these practices to be unlawful.

Although rights for these workers could certainly be improved, the fundamental problem of employment rights in the gig economy is the lack of enforcement of existing law. For this reason the IWGB, of which I am general secretary, has three main policy proposals: 1) introduce government enforcement of employment law; 2) eliminate employment tribunal fees; and 3) increase employment rights for “workers” so they enjoy more of the same rights as employees. So how have the three main political parties done on the subject?

The Tories are the party that has overseen the rise of bogus employment classifications, introduced employment tribunal fees, refused to enforce employment law, and has a consistent track record of reducing employment rights. Unsurprisingly, they tend to also be quite chummy with “gig economy” employers: secretly lobbying the mayor of London for Uber and a revolving door of PR and communications officials with Deliveroo being just two examples.

The Tories nevertheless have the gall to tell manifesto readers that they “will make sure that people working in the ‘gig’ economy are properly protected”. They promise to do this off the back of the Taylor review, which Theresa May commissioned to look at employment practices in the “modern economy”. The recent reincarnation of May as a champion of workers’ rights, engineered for electoral purposes, is hardly credible.

The Liberal Democrats’ solution – building on the recommendations of the Taylor review – is quite similar to the Conservatives’. This is unsurprising as their contribution to the problem was quite similar to the Tories’ as well. One key difference is that the Lib Dems are calling for the elimination of employment tribunal fees. Putting aside for the moment the fact that the party’s leader voted to introduce the fees just a few years ago, this policy is of course most welcome and would help hold to account employers who bogusly class their workers as independent contractors.

The Lib Dems also say they will “strengthen enforcement of employment rights, including by bringing together relevant enforcement agencies”. The devil of this will certainly be in the details: the result will need to be greater than the sum of its parts as the relevant enforcement agencies have been extremely limited in both their scope and impact.

Unlike the Tories and Lib Dems, who apparently depend on the Taylor review to tell them what the employment rights problems of the gig economy are, Labour has identified them and is proposing concrete solutions. The party would create an adequately resourced ministry of labour to be responsible for enforcing employment law. That would include putting the burden on employers to demonstrate that their workers are not in fact employees, and imposing punitive fines on employers that used bogus employment status.

Labour would also extend all rights enjoyed by employees to workers, eliminate tribunal fees, and set up a commission to review and modernise employment status definitions. Unlike the Taylor review, which has repeatedly mischaracterised the current state of the law and has no trade union representation, Labour’s commission would be “led by legal and academic experts with representation from industry and trade unions”.

One might also want to consider that while the coalition government – in which Theresa May was home secretary and Tim Farron party president of the junior partner – was making it harder for employees to claim unfair dismissal and nearly impossible for them to go to tribunal, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn were on the picket lines supporting low-paid workers.

In the intervening period it has become fashionable to promise workers’ rights and government intervention. But voting Tory or Lib Dem in the hope they will deliver on those pledges might put one at risk of falling within one definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Despite the oft-repeated caricature of the Labour party as wanting to take us back to the 1970s, it is the only major party proposing an employment-rights regime fit for the 21st century.