When I awoke, bleary-eyed, at a quarter to seven on Wednesday morning to the sound of Radio 4 telling me the government had at long last responded to last July’s Taylor Review into Modern Working Practices, I swore. Loudly.
You see, because I am motivated entirely by self-interest, I was hoping the government would delay such a response until at least one-minute past three on March 29. One minute after the deadline for my final project on the gig economy. I thought the project I’d spent six months researching, recording, and writing was, if not finished, in need of extensive revisions in the face of what surely was a concerted and strong government response to a pressing domestic policy priority.
Luckily, I needn’t have worried. Instead, what the government had actually announced was a series of consultation areas. There would be a consultation on employment rights, there would be a consultation on employment status, the government would ask the director of labour market enforcement to look at the possibility of a higher minimum wage for non-guaranteed hours, you get the idea. What I and many others saw certainly didn’t warrant the fanfare plastered on the front page of the Independent: “Gig economy workers win ‘major’ new rights”. As the FT’s former employment correspondent Sarah O’Connor tweeted: “What major new rights? At best the govt has promised (with consultation) to enforce existing rights better”.
It seems my project will be fine. Those working in the gig economy on the other hand might have to wait a little longer than March 29.
It is especially frustrating because some of these moves are laudable. Moves to provide clearer definitions of both employment status and working time, two issues that have reared their head the most in some of the landmark gig economy court cases, are a good way of shifting the burden from employment tribunals to legislation. To quote Matthew Taylor himself, “the law should do more and the courts less”. That way, those providing services for a platform like Uber, our chosen bête noire in this area, would know from greater clarity in the law what rights they are already entitled to, as would the platform themselves. A higher minimum wage for non-guaranteed hours would also be an incentive for employers to move workers onto more stable contracts, and thus provide them with greater job security.
But why is it all taking so long? Matthew Taylor’s review took eighteen months in itself, and saw contributions from think tanks, lawyers, trade unions, and companies. Do we really need another consultation that will deliver the same conclusion, that yes, the legislation surrounding employment status needs clarifying and the existing law needs greater enforcement? And when it comes to the latter, these are crucial seconds lost.
Because on the issue of enforcement, the courts have proven in multiple cases involving multiple platforms that a large proportion of gig workers are entitled to basic rights such as the National Living Wage and holiday pay. And while the government faffs around on consultations on the enforcement of those rights, those rights are obviously not being enforced. And again, that places the burden solely on the courts. For example, Hugo Martin, the Director of Legal and Public Affairs at courier firm Hermes, told a Parliamentary Select Committee that it would be for each individual self-employed courier to take their case to a tribunal, even if they were all involved in very similar employment relationships to someone who had already taken Hermes to tribunal and won. One employment lawyer I spoke to called that situation “ridiculous” and “disingenuous”, and it’s hard to disagree.
There’s no particular reason why, even if the government is engaged in consultations on substantive changes to the law, it cannot enforce the ones that exist already, especially in the light of numerous tribunal cases that suggest a trend of gig workers being misclassified as self-employed. It’s a disservice to those who work for these platforms who are currently lacking the rights they are entitled to under the law.
As I said, the government’s response contains some suggestions that are meritorious. But the issue is that its buried under delays and consultations. With the government tied up with Brexit and the constant ‘will she go, won’t she’ saga of Theresa May’s premiership, is anyone really confident that substantive legislation will manifest itself in the foreseeable future?
That same morning last Wednesday I sent an email to my project supervisor, with the subject line “The government’s response to the Taylor Review, a visual representation.” It was a cartoon of a can being kicked down the road.