REUTERS | Tiksa Negeri

Modern employment: back to the future?

On 14 February Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, and his team held the first of ten town hall events designed to gather evidence for the Taylor Review on Modern Employment Practices, which was launched on 30 November last year.

Fittingly, for a review inspired in part by concerns about the status of those working in the “on demand” economy, the town hall was held at Google Campus London‘s “plug and play” events space and ticketing was managed through Eventbrite. But the discussions did not always propose “modern” solutions to the issues that have been identified in the “gig economy”.

The programme consisted of two panel sessions, with the audience able to pose questions after each and during a longer session at the end of the afternoon. Panellists represented diverse bodies, including the Institute of Directors, Unison, BECTU (a union for media and entertainment professionals) and APSCo. The audience likewise included representatives from a broad range of organisations as well as individuals working in the industries under discussion, who gave personal views of their experiences.

Matthew Taylor made clear at the beginning of the session that he could make no commitment to any course of action at this time: the discussion was intended to be entirely open and allow the sharing of ideas.

Many of the themes and concerns which were canvassed were foreshadowed in a report published earlier this year (but commissioned by the 2010 – 2015 Coalition Government) entitled Employment Status Review. These included:

  • Tension between the flexibility of “gigs” and lack of rights.
  • Lack of education about what a particular “employment status” actually means.
  • Uncertainty about individuals’ status, as highlighted by recent litigation (such as the Uber, CitySprint and Pimlico Plumbers cases).
  • The risk of exploitation of this uncertainty/lack of education by unscrupulous employers.

Back to the future?

Some of the possible solutions suggested in the Review are of a type that might be expected of a review of “modern employment”: for example, the proposal for a smart “online tool” to help define employment status. However, it was notable that some of the suggestions put forward during the town hall seemed to come from the “analogue” age.

Suggestions included whether:

  • unions or collective bargaining by groups could mitigate imbalances in bargaining power;
  • wages councils should be reintroduced; and
  • whether sector-specific regulation could play more of a role. For example, in the construction sector, should there be a reintroduction of the old “card” system which logged an individual’s accrued rights and entitlements across all jobs undertaken within the sector, in recognition of the itinerant nature of such work?

The role of authorities

More broadly, the question arose, should the government or local councils be taking a more interventionist approach to mitigate injustices which can arise? Suggestions for such intervention included:

  • Introducing tax incentives where appropriate to enable and encourage individuals to “upskill” throughout their working lives, as proposed in the Institute of Directors’ 2016 report Lifelong Learning.
  • Enforcing the rights of individuals where they have such powers: for example, it was suggested that some councils may be able to use their commissioning powers to ensure that zero-hours contracts are not in place where the reality is that there is a baseline level of work which would allow a certain number of hours to be guaranteed to workers.
  • Giving financial support to claimants proceeding to employment tribunals.

It will be interesting to see how far the Taylor Review results in the application of traditional methods of guaranteeing individuals’ rights, in order to reach the stated goal of creating work that “provides opportunity, fairness and dignity”.

The Review is scheduled to be completed in summer 2017.

Practical Law In-house Alice Southall

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