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Insecure work

Why the new PM must put decent work at the top of his to-do list
Tim Sharp
Senior Policy Officer - trade union and employment law
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Section two: we need better rights for workers

We know that millions of workers desperately need a new deal that gives them access to decent work.

But the government’s response so far to the scourge of insecure work has been inadequate on paper and glacial to put into practice.

Following trade union campaigning, the government’s Good Work Plan has resulted in some small changes to policy, that could help protect insecure workers – listed in the box below.

What does the Good Work Plan provide?

But there are huge areas where the government has taken no action and needs to act now. We’re calling for:

  • a ban on zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment
  • a decent floor of rights for all workers and the return of protection against unfair dismissal to millions of working people.
  • ensuring workers enjoy the same basic rights as employees, including redundancy pay and family-friendly rights.
  • new rights so that workers can be protected by a union in every workplace, and when we use social media, so that nobody has to face their employer alone.
  • new rights for workers to bargain through unions for fair pay and conditions across industries, ending the race to the bottom.

We set out more detail in each of these areas below.

ZHCs and false self-employment

Zero-hours contracts, in which workers are not guaranteed work, are a one-sided form of flexibility.

Workers have little idea how much they will earn from one week to the next.

Many work long hours, worried that turning down shifts will mean they won’t get future work. Others are unable to cobble together enough work to pay the bills.

The government’s response is to propose giving workers on these contracts the “right to request” a predictable and stable contract after six months in the role.

This is an extremely weak right, which does nothing to guarantee job security for people working on zero-hours contracts.

The right to ask your employer a question is close to meaningless. This right has yet to be introduced.

The TUC wants a ban on zero-hours contracts.

We are clear that employment rights are of little use if they are not enforced.

Robust enforcement, as well as a floor of basic rights (see below), is also required to tackle the problem of employers misclassifying workers as self-employed

The Taylor Review that led to the Good Work Plan recommended that the state take responsibility for enforcing a “core” set of rights including holiday pay. But the government has already watered this down to enforcement of rights relating to “vulnerable workers”.

Meanwhile, it is not clear that enforcement agencies will have enough funding to enable them to prioritise their new responsibilities.

In particular, there is large scale underpayment of holiday pay. The TUC estimates that UK workers are missing out on £3.1 billion of holiday pay every year, which is considerably more than estimated underpayment of the National Minimum Wage.

The TUC supports the extension of the remit of HM Revenue and Customs’ minimum wage team to cover enforcement of contractual and statutory holiday pay and statutory sick pay.

Much insecure work is created because organisations outsource functions to others.

It has been proposed that a system of joint responsibility is put in place. This would allow enforcement agencies to contact the organisation at the top of the supply chain to resolve labour rights abuses throughout the supply chain. Failure to do so within a given timeframe would then result in sanctions for the supplier, but the end user would also be named.

The TUC has called for a full system of joint and several liability where the end user would be liable for abuses throughout the supply chain.

A decent floor of rights

We need to ensure all working people benefit from the same floor of decent employment rights from their first day in work and employers cannot contract out of their employment responsibilities.

This would mean a wider range of people would benefit from rights, including the right to request flexible working, to return to their job after maternity and paternity leave, to statutory redundancy pay and for union reps to have paid time off for trade union duties.

Government has proposed legislating to extend from one week to four weeks the break permitted before continuous service ends.

This would allow more people in insecure work to retain rights to things like maternity leave, flexible working, statutory redundancy pay and protection from unfair dismissal.

While any extension of this right is welcome, the TUC argued that all workers should be entitled to key rights from day one. Also, any calendar month during which an individual has done work for an employer should count to continuous service; a ‘ratchet’ effect should apply, so that the period of continuous service does not return to zero after a break. Any periods of statutory leave should count towards workers’ continuous service.

But for these rights to be of value, workers must be able to enforce them, notably through employment tribunals.

In 2017, the government’s employment tribunal fees model was found to be unlawful. Fees were subsequently abolished, enabling more workers to take cases to ensure they are paid properly, including for holidays.

But the system is underfunded and creaking, causing huge delays in resolving cases. And the government has threatened to impose fees again.

We need an employment tribunals system that is properly resourced and accessible to all who need to use it.

New rights so that workers can be protected by a union in every workplace, and new rights for workers to bargain through unions

There is a clear link between the role of trade unions and decent work.

The OECD, a group of developed countries that has been relatively hostile to unions in the past, recently acknowledged that collective bargaining, in which unions and employers negotiate over pay and conditions, tackles inequality:

“Collective bargaining institutions and social dialogue can help promote a broad sharing of productivity gains, including with those at the bottom of the job ladder, provide voice to workers and endow employers and employees with a tool for addressing common challenges.”

But rather than enhance the role of trade unions, instead in the UK we have seen attacks and restrictions on trade union rights.

The Trade Union Act 2016 limits further unions’ ability to organise by imposing arbitrary thresholds in industrial action ballots, adding complicated new balloting and notice rules and placing new restrictions on union campaigning.

Unions have had some notable successes in recruiting members and gaining recognition in workplaces with significant insecure work.

The GMB has signed a collective bargaining deal with delivery company Hermes, for example.

But unions have found it hard to organise in many workplaces without a history of trade union involvement in the face of often transient workforces, hostile employers and restrictive legislation.

The Trade Union Act needs to be repealed. In its place should come a new settlement that allows trade unions to recruit and negotiate effectively in workplaces and across sectors.

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