Stuck on a zero-hours contract? The government thinks you can ask your boss for a better deal

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Published date
17 Dec 2018
The reforms on employment rights introduced by the government today won’t change the balance of power in the workplace.
Bar worker at night. Photo: AntGor

Today the government has at last responded to the Taylor Review of modern work – nine long months after it launched a consultation in February.

From what we’ve seen so far, its clear ministers haven’t listened to what workers want and need to address the balance of power in the workplace – especially in the so-called ‘gig economy’.

Let’s remember the problems this review was meant to be fixing. One in nine workers – or 3.7 million people – are currently in insecure jobs.

We know that workers on zero-hours contracts at places like Sports Direct face terrible conditions, with over half having had their shifts cancelled at short notice.

And we know that gig economy employers like Uber and Amazon have tried to deny workers their legitimate rights.

But rather than give workers the tools they need to build and enhance these rights, the government is urging them to rely on the good will of their employers.

So rather than the outright ban on zero-hours contracts we called for, the government is introducing a ‘right to request’ a more stable and predictable contract after six months in the job.

The right to ask nicely is no right at all – it will give insecure workers as much power as Oliver Twist.

And rather than letting unions access workplaces like Amazon to bargain for workers, there are new rights to information and consultation. This is better than nothing, but the balance of power will remain firmly on the side of the employer.

Ministers should have looked at how to better enforce the rules around employment status by shifting the burden of proof to the employer to show someone is genuinely self-employed.

This would have made it much harder for firms to falsely deny people basic rights at work like the minimum wage and rest breaks.

Instead they announced the introduction of new laws that could be used by expensive lawyers to unpick the gains workers have won, and let platform companies off the hook.

There’s at least some good news in there. Ending the so-called Swedish Derogation that let employers pay agency workers less than regular staff is a well-deserved victory for union campaigning.

It’s also welcome that the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate will be able to regulate umbrella companies, and that holiday pay – so often denied to workers – will be better enforced (though the government isn’t very clear how).

But this is not the game changer people working at the sharp end of the labour market needed.

These reforms won’t do anything for workers who worry about their shift being cancelled at the last minute, or how much work they will have from one week to the next.

The government could and should have gone much further.