Theresa May’s workers’ rights review is flawed from start

5 October 2016 - 3:15pm
War on Want in the news

Owen Espley is senior labour rights campaigner at War on Want. An edited version of this article was first carried by the Independent

The prime minister has announced that: ‘Flexibility and innovation are a vital part of what makes our economy strong’ - but flexibility can only ever be code for exploitation.

On the face of it Theresa May’s review into workers’ rights and practices seems like a good thing. It will look at issues such as workplace insecurity, holiday pay and parental rights; it will address how employment practices need to change in order to keep pace the changing world of work. This is not to be sniffed at, right? Wrong.

The review focuses chiefly on the “self-employed” and “temporary employees”, and therein lays the problem.  From the off, there is a real danger that this review merely legitimises the very kind of work that is at the root of workplace exploitation, while at the same time presenting some minor fix to employment law as the solution. Don’t be fooled by this self-styled ‘workers’ party’ of government.

On Saturday Theresa May announced that: “Flexibility and innovation are a vital part of what makes our economy strong, but it is essential that these virtues are combined with the right support and protections for workers.” Again in her final speech at Tory conference she repeated: “(W)e’re going to review our laws to make sure that, in our modern and flexible economy, people are properly protected at work.”

However the above statement is a contradiction in terms:  simply, workers cannot be protected when the market is flexible.  The growth in recent years of companies like Deliveroo, Sports Direct and Asos has coincided with the growth of insecure, precarious work.

All too often, it is big business that benefits from “flexible contracts”, and in two key ways: First, it passes the risk of the fluctuating demand onto the worker, and second, more ominously, it hands discretionary power, often to low level supervisors, to withhold future work.

Today, more and more workers find themselves in precarious work, unable to plan their lives or support their families as their hours and schedules are unpredictable. 

With bosses holding all the power, workers are too afraid to speak out for fear of losing future work. Put simply, precarious work is a recipe for insecurity and exploitation.

An ‘independent’ review it may be – the responsibility of Tony Blair’s ex advisor, Matthew Taylor – but expect little. Unless the review addresses the massive imbalance of power that exits between workers and bosses, it will have failed. 

The key test should be whether workers end up more or less empowered. Who, for instance, bears the brunt when things go bad? Whose pocket should a slow evening of takeaway orders hit hardest: the Deliveroo driver or Deliveroo?

If the government is genuinely open to a forward thinking approach to employment practices it would free trade unions from bureaucratic ‘red tape’ and let them to do what they do best: give workers a voice in the workplace.  Having fired the starting gun on Brexit, the prime minister recently spoke of a Great Repeal Bill. If she is serious about workers’ rights, surely she must begin by repealing the Trade Union Act.

Simple sloganeering or self-styling will not make workers lives better.

If we are to stop the appalling treatment metered out to workers in insecure work, we must end precarious contracts, for good. 

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