Proper patrolling of workers’ rights is welcome. If the losers in the gig economy are to be helped, ministers must be tougher
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.
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