11:07, December 30 132 0 theguardian.com

2018-12-30 11:07:20
The Guardian view on the gig economy: rights need enforcing

The increased level of intervention by the government in the labour market since Theresa May became prime minister is both rational and humane. The UK economy is too reliant on low-wage, low-skilled jobs, many of which are also insecure. While unemployment remains low, and in-work poverty is a serious problem, there is no good reason for ministers not to apply pressure to employers. Figures published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation this month suggest one in eight workers (4 million people) are now classified as poor. Working conditions and low pay are causing real suffering, with ambulances called to Amazon’s UK warehouses 600 times in three years. DPD delivery driver Don Lane died after missing medical appointments because he feared being fined for taking time off work.

The review of the gig economy by thinktanker Matthew Taylor last year produced 53 recommendations, 51 of which ministers accept. Higher fines for employers who mistreat staff, and plans to inform workers of their rights on day one of any new job, are sensible. So is the repeal of a rule that allows employers to pay agency workers less than full-time staff. But a new right for zero-hours workers to request regular hours falls far short of union demands that they be entitled to them as a right. And details of the agency tasked with investigating and punishing abuses, and naming and shaming employers who fail to pay out after employment tribunals, remain vague. As with all regulation, the devil is in the detail of who, with which resources, has the power to do what. At the moment, workers in the UK bear a greater share of the burden of enforcement than in most European countries, with tribunals often the only recourse once an employer’s internal processes have been exhausted. It is almost two years since the economist David Metcalf was given the task of overseeing labour market enforcement, but his empire is small. It takes in a small team of employment agency inspectors, gangmaster licensing and the minimum wage (health and safety is separate). Given the scandalous scale of unpaid wages (estimated at £3.1bn in 2016, much of it holiday pay), and other failures highlighted by the Low Pay Commission and others, this regime is recognised as inadequate. But just as the government did not accept all of Mr Taylor’s recommendations, it has not accepted all those contained in Mr Metcalf’s first full annual report. Among measures rejected in December was a call for increased penalties for non-compliance.

Without such penalties as a deterrent, it is hard to see how improvement is to be brought about. Just as the government retracted its own proposal to put workers on boards, following the inevitable pushback from business, it appears to have bowed to the will of employers regarding flexibility in the labour market. The welcome rise in the minimum wage to £8.21 next April (a rise of 4.9% from the current rate of £7.83) is undercut when politicians know that many workers, most of them women, are not receiving their due.

This is not the only grounds for scepticism. The no-deal Brexit that the government is preparing for would deliver a shock that these vulnerable, low-paid workers would not easily be able to absorb. In the longer term, inside or outside the EU, the UK needs a more resilient and more highly skilled workforce. This doesn’t diminish the value of the national industrial strategy, along with a workstream focused on workers’ rights, and the admission that flexibility has costs – sometimes far too high – as well as benefits. These are foundations that future governments should be able to build on.

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