The gig economy is nothing new. Before the Dock Labour Scheme of 1967, there was widespread use of casual labour in ports like Liverpool. Dockers depended on a tap on the shoulder to get work. The rise of the unions in the sixties and seventies forced back irresponsible bosses but the predatory instincts of capitalism are always waiting in the wings and have returned now with the gig economy.
Now before you fear I’ve been spending too much time with Shadow Chancellor and avowed Marxist John McDonnell, I should say that I believe private enterprise should flourish and make profits. Owners are entitled to benefit from their bright ideas and risk taking in setting up businesses and shareholders should get a return on their investment. But workers are also entitled to fair wages and secure employment if they want it.
A report was published this week by the former aide to Tony Blair, Matthew Taylor, which could have major implications for business, employees and “dependent contractors”. The last category is one we are going to have to get used to. It is the new name created by Taylor to describe the current position that former dockers found themselves in as they waited anxiously for a few hours work on the dockside.
Nowadays the demand of society is not for casually employed dock workers but for taxi drivers and delivery services. Digital technology has made it possible for people to gain casual employment by identifying a need on line. Many people want work that fits around their lives not employers. Rebecca Long -Bailey and the Labour Party need to recognise this before embarking on a crusade on behalf of workers who, when they look round, may not be behind them. She’s the Salford MP who is also shadow Business Secretary and says using Uber taxis is “morally unacceptable”. I prefer black cabs but I recognise that not everyone employed in the “gig” economy is trapped there by a ruthless employer.
Some are and that is why Taylor is right to call for good work for all with a baseline of rights and a ladder of progress. There is a need to distinguish between the genuinely self-employed and “dependent contractors”. Self-employed pay lower taxes in recognition that they don’t get pension and sick benefits. (There is no sign the government are going to look again at raising their National Insurance contributions). Meanwhile Taylor identifies “dependent contractors” as people working for employers who rely on zero hours, short hours or agency contracts when they should be planning their employment needs better. These workers should receive sick pay and holidays.
The reform would end the confusion which allows firms like Deliveroo to claim their workers are self-employed when in fact it is difficult for them to turn down work.
Over a million people are employed in the “gig” economy and they have contributed to keeping the employment figures healthy while we are in danger of heading into a Brexit economic downturn.
Whether the government will implement the Taylor Report is doubtful. The Prime Minister says she would need opposition support and Labour is already saying it doesn’t go far enough.
I promised to report on my lunch with Vince Cable. I didn’t make it due to a three hour delay on the West Coast mainline. Bring on HS2
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