MPs held a debate on insecure work and the ‘gig economy’, initiated by Labour’s Stephanie Peacock. The debate comes on the back of the Supreme Court ruling on Pimlico Plumbers – see more here – and as the Government considers responses to its consultations linked to the Taylor Review. Most speakers were Labour, with only one Conservative backbench speaker.
Shadow BEIS Minister Laura Pidcock complained that a whole industry has ‘exploded’ to formalise and professionalise insecurity at work, including through the use and abuse of new technology. An incoming Labour Government would bring about a workplace rights revolution, Pidcock said.
Stephanie Peacock said it is notoriously difficult to measure insecure work, which is in itself part of the problem, but some estimates put the number of people trapped in insecure employment well into the millions. She also claimed nearly three million people are underemployed and left seeking more hours than they secure week after week. Companies’ widespread avoidance of the minimum wage, holiday pay and sick leave is estimated to cost the public purse £300 million a year in lost national insurance contributions. She accused the Government of kicking the Taylor review’s recommendations into the long grass. She called for, from day one, agency workers to be afforded the same rights and pay as permanent staff doing the same roles in the same company.
Lloyd Russell-Moyle said a constituent ended up with hypothermia after waiting for Deliveroo work. When he was admitted to hospital, he was not offered the sick pay and protection that other employees get. Justin Madders backed the Pimlico Plumbers judgment because someone has worked at the same company for six years and should be entitled to basic workplace protections. The ‘worker’ category has always been an unsatisfactory halfway house between employed and self-employed and should be scrapped, so people are either employed or self-employed – with the presumption of employment if someone is carrying out the work personally, he said.
Alex Sobel suggested the Dutch approach, where they have contracts by agreement, under which fixed-term agreements are paid by the hour with a legal route to permanent contracts. Employment rights lawyer Ellie Reeves said: “Let us have a presumption of direct employment for agency workers, close the door to bogus self-employment and ban zero-hours contracts, and have better enforcement and tougher penalties for those who flout the law.” Fake self-employed status of gig economy workers cost the taxpayer a staggering £75 million a week in lost tax and benefit payouts, said Siobhain McDonagh. Companies use whatever loopholes and grubby shortcuts they need to exploit people’s desperation, said Alex Norris.
Wes Streeting said Taylor’s report was not nearly ambitious enough.” He said it was ‘utterly perverse’ that many of the people in low-paid insecure work are forced to rely on tax credits. “In other words, all of us as taxpayers are funding the exploitative business models of their employers who do not pay their staff proper wages.” We have to do away with the nonsense of the Swedish derogation, said Liam Byrne.
Gillian Keegan cited a study carried out by the DBEIS which identified that the most common use for this type of employment was to supplement income streams, with approximately two thirds of those who took part in the study earning less than five per cent of their income with gig economy work. The gig economy can provide a great way for women to continue to work while balancing their responsibilities, Keegan added. Some 90 per cent of those who are wholly reliant on gig income said that they were satisfied, although she did not specify whether that was from the same study.
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for BEIS Andrew Griffiths said the gig economy and agency working offer great opportunities and new ways in which to participate in the labour market. The Government does not support or condone the use of Swedish derogation contracts to circumvent equal pay entitlements. The number of people reporting that they are employed on a zero-hours contract is down from 905,000 last year to 901,000, with, of the 1.7 million temporary workers in the UK, 28 per cent of them saying that they did not want a permanent job. The Government have continued to invest ‘heavily’ in minimum wage enforcement, doubling the budget to £26.3 million, up from £13 million last year.
SNP’s Chris Stephens said there are 4,504 full-time equivalent posts chasing social security fraud estimated at £1.2 billion, while only 400 are employed to chase minimum wage compliance. Stephens also spoke up for his Workers (Definitions and Rights) Bill, which proposes that zero-hour contracts should only be in place where there is a collective agreement with a recognised trade union. He was concerned about the Taylor review trying to introduce additional tiers of worker, because he thinks there should be a single definition of a worker.
A 2016 report from the ONS revealed that only 1.9 per cent of workers in Northern Ireland are on zero-hours contracts, said DUP’s Jim Shannon. His major concern about those on zero-hours contracts is because, in his Strangford constituency, almost 23 per cent of children live in poverty; that is partly due to people being on zero-hours contracts, he said.
The full debate can be found here.