20 November 2017

How to make the gig economy work for us all

By Rachel Maclean MP

The joint BEIS and Work and Pensions Committees’ report into the Taylor Review of the gig economy, which is published today, is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Too often the gig economy is associated in the public’s mind with the idea of low-paid, insecure work that exploits the vulnerable. This is certainly the caricature that has been painted by Labour and the trade unions. In recent elections, Labour have made much of their promises to ban “zero hours contracts”. Never mind that its actually the Conservatives who have strengthened legislation in this area; and that many enjoy the flexibility that zero hours delivers.

Labour and the trade unions’ insistence on a black-and-white account of the nuanced reality reveals just how out of touch and out of date they have become, still wedded to the now largely irrelevant idea of an old fashioned paternalistic worker model.  Unsurprisingly, according to this version of events, the unions and the Labour Party are all that there is to protect the downtrodden workers from nasty capitalist exploiters, who have the backing by the Conservatives.

The modern economy is just so much more complex than this. Which is why the time is ripe for Conservatives tell our own story and become the champion of good work. After all we’ve got a fantastic story to tell; getting record numbers of people into work and off welfare, growing the economy to promote more business start ups, all while keeping corporate taxes low and rewarding aspiration and hard work. Our opponents will stop at nothing to rubbish this, and seek to return to a time when work didn’t pay, enterprise was stifled and innovation strangled at birth.

Year after year, the gig economy continues to grow as innovators find better ways to satiate our demand for services of all kinds on tap. For us as consumers, this is life enhancing, delivering freedoms and opportunities beyond our imaginings even a few months ago.

And while its clearly here to stay, we are becoming aware of the potential dark side to this, with stories of precarious work, exploitation and illegally low pay.  So, as Conservatives, we shouldn’t be afraid to stamp out exploitative working practices. Such infractions only tarnish the reputation of the majority of employers as well as innovators risking personal capital and working all hours to get risky start ups off the ground. We should not allow pockets of bad practice to undermine the licence that society gives for capitalism to operate effectively and deliver gains to all.

As a member of the BEIS Select Committee, I am confident that our recommendations effectively target unscrupulous employers. As we say in the report, “responsible businesses should have nothing to fear from our recommendations. Instead, they stand to benefit from the level playing field we seek to create. A willingness to exploit workers should not be a competitive advantage, and a race to the bottom risks undercutting the vast majority of businesses that treat their workers well.”

Most good companies, for example, already provide a statement of terms and conditions on day one to a new employee. I certainly always did when I was taking on new staff in my business. Such a statement would make clear whether the person is a worker or an employee, and lay out their rights clearly. That should be common practice. The lowering of the threshold of people in a workplace asking for a mechanism for a worker voice in management’s business decisions made by management is another common sense proposal. Before I joined Parliament, I set up the staff council in the mid-sized Birmingham manufacturer I worked in. Employees loved it, and not only did it provide a voice for front line staff that was listened to without criticism, it also provided great opportunities for fun and team-building.

With the rise of the gig economy has come the rise of business models relying on self-employment to deliver services via a platform to consumers. Unfortunately, the concept of self-employment has sometimes turned out to be bogus, with risk of exploitation and pay that is well below the minimum wage. While some workers have been able to show they are in fact employees and gain associated rights, we don’t believe that the onus should be on a busy, low-paid person to bear the risk and stress of going to a tribunal to prove they aren’t truly “self-employed” and to get basic rights at work such as the legal minimum wage, minimum levels of paid holiday and rest breaks, as well as protections against discrimination.

Our report proposes that if large and profitable companies want to operate a self-employed business model, then the onus should be on them to prove that the workers are genuinely self-employed. Otherwise, we propose, people will be workers by default.

This could hardly be said to interfere with genuine self-employment – and the freedom it provides for many people – and the potential for the new forms of platform business to expand and deliver great services to consumers.

A modern economy needs to adapt and change, and Conservatives should be on the side of legislation that allows innovative new services provide a cheaper and better service to consumers while protecting the people delivering those services. Failure to do so means letting our opponents paint us as anti-worker.

Let’s champion good work in all its forms by incentivising new forms of employment that deliver freedoms and earnings to workers and benefits to consumers equally.

Rachel Maclean is the Conservative MP for Reddich and a member of the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee.