A CHANGING economy over the past decade has led to a boom in new jobs, which have combined to create a worrying picture of employment rights across our economy. Often under the pretence of offering flexibility, employers have exploited working practices to maximise profit at the expense of workers.
The experience of being trapped in a low-paid job with no guaranteed hours, wages or security of employment, and of being unable to plan past this week’s rota or pay cheque, with fewer rights and lower pay than colleagues, is all too familiar for people across the country.
It is notoriously difficult to measure insecure work, which is in itself part of the problem, but some estimates put the number of people trapped in insecure employment well into the millions.
The number of people in zero-hours or agency contracts alone is near the one million mark, while nearly three million people are underemployed and left seeking more hours than they secure week after week.
Areas such as my own in Barnsley are disproportionately affected. Former industrial towns and coalfield areas have been left behind by the economy and are taken advantage of.
Where average wages lag far behind national levels, unemployment is higher and social mobility is appallingly low. Unscrupulous companies can offer insecure, low-paid work where the alternative is often nothing.
In Barnsley, the switch to gig employment and short-term work in areas such as distribution warehouses and our public sector means that too many people in my constituency simply cannot be certain that their job will last longer than the next rota. No matter how hard they work, their precarious employment leaves them with no chance to save up or plan for the future.
It is not just workers who suffer. Companies’ widespread avoidance of the minimum wage, holiday pay and sick leave is estimated to cost the public purse £300m a year in lost National Insurance contributions.
Such practices undermine the many employers who play by the rules, the companies that invest in their workers’ skills and training, the family-run businesses that pay their staff a decent wage, and the employers who pay their taxes and make pension contributions. In one way or another, we are all footing the bill for the businesses that take advantage of precarious work. Action is long overdue.
It is a little over a year to the day since the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street after the election and noted that people who have a job do not always have job security.
Sadly, the Government has kicked the Taylor review’s recommendations into the long grass. Will Ministers commit to take action to ensure more and better workplace inspections to ensure that the scant, bare-minimum protections that workers are currently afforded are actually enforced, and that swift action is taken against abusive employers?
On companies that make profits off the backs of agency workers, will Ministers ensure that, from day one, agency workers are afforded the same rights and pay as permanent staff doing the same roles in the same company?
That is another issue that I sought to address in my recent Private Member’s Bill. Cases brought against Uber and Pimlico Plumbers show that such workers are employees; they are not self-employed or independent contractors, as was claimed. In view of such cases, will the Government act now, rather than wait for every single worker to undertake judicial proceedings against their employer? Those are not just legal judgments against individual employers, but damning indictments of employers in the gig economy as a whole.
I have heard from an Amazon worker who has seen women colleagues tragically miscarry in a warehouse, and fights break out on the packing floor because the competition for work is so high. I have heard the heartbreaking story of a care worker whose employers forced her to provide a urine sample to prove she was too sick to work.
Another care worker’s agency refused to give her work as soon as it found out she was pregnant.
I have heard from a Hermes worker who gets only one day off a year to spend with his family, which has a damaging effect not just on him but on his wife and children.
Those workers are the real face of the gig economy. It is simply not good enough. We urgently need an economy that works for everyone. We need well-paid jobs that offer long-term security and give people the chance not just to get by, but to succeed and prosper. We need genuine action that addresses the employment loopholes that unscrupulous employers use to exploit vulnerable workers. Many people across the UK need action now.
Stephanie Peacock is the Labour MP for Barnsley East. She spoke in a Parliamentary debate on the gig economy – this is an edited version.