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Good Work? Fat Chance

17th July 2017

Good Work? Fat Chance

By Mick Brooks

A year ago Theresa May became Prime Minister. She uttered these words on the steps of Downing Street:
“If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.”

This soothing statement was followed by…precisely nothing. The following year has seen the Tories in office acting as the willing instrument of the bosses as they strive to squeeze more and more out of their workers.

Not only have working class living standards stagnated and fallen since the Tories took over, but there has been a massive increase in the insecurity of employment. This has been encroaching for decades but has jumped forward since the great Recession of 2008. The bosses have the whip hand, and they know it.

Never mind. Matthew Taylor, a former adviser to Tony Blair was commissioned by the government to review modern working practices. His report, ‘Good Work’, was published last week.

Taylor is an enthusiastic supporter of the present capitalist order. His report gushed the usual clichés. “Getting a job is the best way out of poverty.”...”Flexibility is a good thing.” All the same the review had to admit that many workers were getting too much of a good thing.
There are three main categories of workers who are super-exploited under the present employment system:

Workers on zero hours contracts (ZHCs). There are reckoned to be nearly a million toiling in the British economy on ZHCs. They have no security, no sign of when their next pay cheque will arrive and no chance of getting a mortgage.

The self-employed. There are reckoned to be more than 4 million self-employed and the number is increasing rapidly. The numbers are as cloudy as the definition.  Though some are genuine independent contractors, most are bogus. Unscrupulous lawyers have been hired by the bosses to use the definition of self-employment to hack away at the rights of those who are really employees

If you have to wear a uniform and clock in, are you really working for yourself? One advantage to the bosses is that they don’t have to pay sick pay or holiday pay to the ‘self-employed’. Bogus self-employment is booming in the burgeoning ‘gig economy’, where cab drivers or delivery cyclists in firms like Uber and CitySprint are deemed to be not working for a boss but under the direction of an electronic platform.
Agency workers. Between ½  and 1½ million count as agency workers. If you have a contact with an agency, then you’re not directly employed by the firm where you work such as Sports Direct. So it’s a classic cop out. ‘Not me, gov, I’m not responsible for your wages and conditions’.

One small reform Taylor advocates is the abolition of the ‘Swedish derogation’ for agency workers. A loophole in the EU Agency Workers’ Directive allows employers to pay agency workers less than those directly employed for doing exactly the same job. The TUC has been fighting this scam for years. But that’s about it.

How does the Taylor Report try to sort out the jungle of different employment conditions? It soothingly relates, “The best way to achieve better work is not national regulation but responsible corporate governance, good management and strong employment relations within the organisation.” In other words labour and capital should co-operate. But this would be ‘co-operation’ between horse and rider.

Co-operation. In the spirit of co-operation Taylor suggests that agency workers and those on ZHCs should be able to apply for permanent employment after a year. But employers need not accept the request. They could reject every request with impunity. There are no sanctions. Firms above a certain size should be made to publish how many requests they have received. So what?

Mike Ashley and other rotten employers are well aware that their profits come from the super-exploitation of workers at firms like Sports Direct. One reason they get away with it is that the law is well and truly on their side. Intimidation pays them handsomely.

Flexibility. Taylor is a big fan of the flexibility that helps employers make more money at the expense of permanent insecurity for their workers. He sees this flexibility as affording workers freedom. Mohaan Biswas, a motorcycle courier at Deliveroo retorts, “They do exercise control over us. It’s an illusion of freedom.” To quote Janis Joplin, “Freedom is a word for nothing left to lose.”

Taylor suggests that workers can be paid less than the minimum wage at ‘off-peak’ times, while they pay more at peak times. Who decides when off-peak times are? The employer. We either have a minimum wage, a level below which it is accepted that workers cannot live decently, or we don’t. ZHCs, agency work and bogus self-employment are methods that bosses can pay way below the minimum wage.

Regulation. Regulation is necessary because workers are being super-exploited. One DPD driver commented, “This isn’t self-employment or employment – it’s a living hell. The government needs to bring in legislation.” Taylor is not advocating that, and the Tories will never introduce laws in the interests of the working class – we need a Corbyn-led Labour government for that.

The contract of employment. One other problem is the definition of the employment contract in English law. There are three separate categories – workers, employees and the self-employed. Each has different rights and responsibilities and different time periods when these become legally enforceable.  How does Taylor propose to clarify the situation? He has added to the confusion by creating an additional category of ‘dependent contractor’, a definition which is as yet legally untested. 

The LRC’s position is quite clear. Workers, employees and the self-employed should all have the same rights, and they should be enforceable from day one. 

Employment Tribunals. Not only is Taylor unrealistically expecting sweet reason from exploitative bosses. He makes no proposal to make existing rights enforceable. There has been a collapse in the number of cases referred to Employment Tribunals since 2013. In 2013 the Tories introduced stonking fees, such as £1,200 for a claim of unfair dismissal. No wonder Employment Tribunals no longer work. Effectively existing workers’ rights that exist on paper have been made unenforceable. Taylor does not even protest against this.

Clearly the Taylor Review is just window dressing. Wolters Kluwer concluded on behalf of the bosses, “Employers need not fear the Taylor Report.” It doesn’t deal with the real and pressing problems that workers face in the twenty-first century. In any case the Tory government will just kick it into the long grass.

The LRC’s Programme of Employment Rights for a Corbyn-Led Labour Government

• End austerity now. We need a massive public investment programme.
• Establish the rate for the job. Bring back sectoral collective bargaining.
• Abolish zero hours contracts. Give workers security. It can be done. The right wing government in New Zealand has already done it.
• Give the bogus self-employed the same rights as other workers.
• Protect agency workers.
• Abolish the anti-union laws. A charter of rights for trade unions.
• Cut back the bosses’ unfettered rights over companies. Enfranchise employees, consumers and environmental protection as stakeholders in the company.
• Bring back free access to Employment Tribunals.
• Make blacklisting a crime. Treat blacklisters as criminals.
• For a minimum wage of £10 per hour.

A fuller analysis of employment rights is available:: here

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