15:13, July 11 90 0 theguardian.com

2017-07-11 15:13:03
The Guardian view on making work good: will slowly do it?

The Taylor report was commissioned nine months ago. Theresa May was in her prime, apparently in a job for life, or at least until 2020, and she was keen to add substance to her early rhetoric on the “just about managing” by commissioning Matthew Taylor, a respected Blair-era policy guru, to examine ways of improving work. No one foresaw the irony in these altered times of Mrs May trying to boost her chances of survival by presenting a report on precarious work.

Mr Taylor, a man who has always preferred a nudge to a shove, was never likely to mount a revolutionary challenge to the established order. But expectations were high, and now many people are disappointed. Yet it is a very substantial report. Mr Taylor rightly defends its essential recognition of the value not just of work but of good work. And it is important to remember that despite record levels of employment, many people want to work more hours than they do and others, classed as economically inactive, want a job. Britain’s labour market too often offers low pay, low productivity and long hours. These are deeply ingrained problems.

The gig economy has attracted much more attention than these. It has transformed the nature of work for some people, but it still accounts for only a tiny share of the job market. Yet it is also open to abuse. The essential question for this new category of workers is their employment status. Businesses such as Uber and Deliveroo insist they are self-employed contractors. Employment tribunals have found that where there is a significant element of control and supervision they are workers, entitled to benefits like sick and holiday pay, and most importantly to the minimum wage. Uber is fighting this decision, and the Taylor report appears to back away from endorsing it. Instead, it proposes that government rebadge a “worker” as a “dependent contractor”; dependent contractors would get the benefits workers receive but no automatic entitlement to the minimum wage. This may not be such a cop-out as Mr Taylor’s critics believe: he argues that it could be a viable finesse between the flexibility that some Uber and Deliveroo drivers value with the protection that others seek. It would also allow HMRC to collect employer’s national insurance contributions.

The Taylor approach to agency workers may also be less of a disappointment to trade unions when they study the small print. Mr Taylor wants to end the so-called Swedish derogation, a longstanding, much-exploited arrangement that in certain circumstances permits an employer to bring in agency workers to do the same job as employees for lower pay. He also hopes that demanding greater transparency about an employer’s use of agency workers would be a driver for change. He makes the same argument about transparency when he suggests employers be obliged to report how many workers on zero-hours contracts have exercised the new right to request fixed hours that he thinks they should have after a year. Unions scoff at an idea that seems to do nothing to restore the balance of power between worker and boss, and are angry that he is too pragmatic to demand a complete end to employment tribunal fees that have reduced the number of cases by 70%.

Mr Taylor rightly draws attention to much wider problems in the labour market, like the amount of overtime demanded of low-paid workers, and recommends following US legislation in imposing a higher-rate minimum wage in such circumstances. There’s lots of gritty detail along with the ambition to deliver good work. Critics rightly point to the gap between the problems he identifies and the remedies he proposes. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary, laments a missed opportunity. Yet something is almost always better than nothing. Labour should keep fighting for bigger and more sweeping reforms, but at the same time it can and should demand that at the very least the Tories do what the report they commissioned advocates.