Taylor review calls for protections for gig-economy workers

So-called “gig-economy” workers are set to be given a number of new protections, under a Downing Street review into modern working practices released by Theresa May today.

The report by former policy chief to Tony Blair and current head of the RSA thinktank, Matthew Taylor, calls for a new category of worker – in reaction to the business practice of firms such as Uber and Deliveroo, which offer flexible working hours but little to nothing in the way of job security, holiday pay and healthcare cover.

These “dependent contractors” will be differentiated from the fully self-employed, but Taylor recommends that, if these workers are under the “control” and “supervision” of an employer, they should be entitled to holiday and sick pay. “We believe that, if done correctly, placing greater emphasis on control and less emphasis on personal service will result in more people being protected by employment law,” the report reads. 

While the review stops short of recommending all gig-economy workers should be entitled to minimum wage, the report recommends measures to make sure workers aren’t “stuck” at the national living wage.

“There are too many people at work who are treated like cogs in a machine rather than being human beings, and there are too many people who don’t see a route from their current job to progress and earn more and do better,” Taylor told the BBC.

“Missed opportunity”

While Theresa May has presented the recommendations as part of a speech relaunching her premiership, following the loss of her majority in the general election, the review has also been damned this morning as a “disappointing missed opportunity”.

Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, Labour’s shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said the recommendations do not go far enough in ensuring job security for gig-economy workers:

“If it looks like a job or it smells like a job then it is a job, and the worker should be employed, and I think in those situations where a worker is carrying out work on behalf of an employer […] they should not be exploited as flexible workers”.

Tim Roache, the general secretary of labour union GMB, praised the intentions of the Taylor review, but called the results a “disappointing missed opportunity” and claimed that exploitation of workers is at the heart of gig-economy business models: “This isn’t a quirk of the system, this is the system – and without regulation this system will inevitably continue”.

Further criticism is likely to clot around the conception of the report. As The Guardian points out, one of the report’s four panel members – Greg Marsh – is a former investor in Deliveroo, which is a company very much at the heart of the gig-economy. Marsh sold his holdings on the company before joining the panel, but a trade union representing gig economy workers told the paper this previous connection “undermines the entire integrity of the process”.

Uber responds

Uber has responded to today’s release of the Taylor review, which stands to bring about changes to how it pays employees in the UK.

The company’s head of policy Andrew Byrne claims to welcome “greater clarity” when it comes to employment status, but also attempts to distance Uber from the heart of the debate – pointing out that self-employed drivers predate gig-economy services.

“We welcome this report which looks at the rise in self-employment and new ways of working which predate apps like Uber. Indeed almost all taxi and private hire drivers have been self-employed for decades before our app existed,” the statement reads.

“The main reason why people say they sign up to drive with Uber is so they can be their own boss. With our app drivers are totally free to choose if, when and where they drive with no shifts or minimum hours. We would welcome greater clarity in the law over different types of employment status.

“Drivers using Uber made average fares of £15 per hour last year after our service fee and, even after costs, the average driver took home well over the National Living Wage. We know drivers want more security too which is why we’re already investing in discounted illness and injury cover, and will be introducing further improvements soon.”

Deliveroo has yet to comment.

The threat of automation

As well as measures to provide greater security for “dependent contractors”, the Taylor review covers measures for tackling tax avoidance through cash-in-hand work. There are also repeated mentions of automation, and how technologies such as machine learning stand to disrupt jobs in the UK.

“Employers need to think hard about how they are designing jobs that will complement increased automation,” the report reads. “Schools, colleges and universities need to prepare young people for an increasingly diverse career, in roles that do not yet exist”.

The report claims that new jobs will be created thanks to technological advances, but also admits that automation will have a “profound” effect in certain sectors – particularly mentioning the 20 million people estimated by McKinsey that work as heavy tractor-trailer truck drivers. To help support these workers, the report calls on government efforts to increase provision for “lifelong learning”. 

Will this be enough? Last year MPs on the Science and Technology Committee, published a report calling on the government to do more to address the ethical and societal impact of AI. That report said that government leadership in fields like robotics and AI is “lacking”. This echoed earlier calls by Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, who was damning about the current approach of the UK government to the threat of automation. 

“There is no minister for automation,” Watson wrote at the time. “Where is the new institution that brings together trades unions, employers and government to establish how the time liberated and wealth created by robots is equitably shared?”

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