We need an Act of Parliament to clarify the nature and status of workers today, writes CHRIS STEPHENS
FOR too many years workers’ rights were rarely debated outside of trade union conferences, but since the 2008 crash when the failures of big business landed the least well-off taxpayers with the bill for the corporate gamblers and their reckless handling of the global economy, the increasing sense of outrage that hard work is not being rewarded properly has grown.
Far from tackling the very unbalanced nature of an economy which rewards failure as long as it’s on a global scale — the government has clung to the supremacy of the market over workers’ rights.
However, all the evidence shows that a healthy economy values workers and achieving the correct balance between profit and reward is the biggest spur to long-term growth instead of short-term profit.
There are many voices now challenging the sheer scale of exploitation and poor working practices that all age groups experience but which young people in particular are often hardest hit by.
I commend the private member’s Bill that my comrade and colleague the member for Glasgow South, Stewart McDonald, is bringing forward — the Unpaid Trial Work Periods (Prohibition) Bill, which would make it clear that if a trial period is to be offered, then the employer must pay up for that period whether or not a full offer of employment is made.
In many ways there is a false narrative about the modern world of work, which suggests that in the 21st century there is a different dynamic created through technology and that workers have to adapt to be more flexible, more open to different ways of working and leave behind outdated notions of security and guaranteed reward.
The clear implication is that full-time secure employment with rights and a pension and clearly defined hours is an outdated 20th-century concept, instead of the peak of a hard-fought struggle to redress the balance between employer and employee — or at its most extreme, exploiter and exploited.
I make no apology for putting this in stark terms; we need to stand up and take on the siren voices who want to cloud a simple issue that has existed for as long as one person has agreed to pay another for their work. If fairness isn’t nailed down in legislation and enforced then there will always be employers who will push their advantage to the limit and beyond.
I strongly believe the time has come for a full debate about what is “fair work” and how it should be properly rewarded.
My Bill proposes to bring some clarity to the definition of worker which in itself defines what rights are available and consolidates a single statutory definition of the people to whom employment rights and duties apply.
It would also give the house the opportunity for more debate on the issues that are currently being explored in committees following on from the production of the Taylor report.
The Taylor report is useful in one sense in that workers’ rights are front and centre and with Brexit on the horizon we should all be aware of how eas
ily rights we take for granted could disappear.
The report correctly identifies that clarity in the law could be improved, but I take issue with the solutions proposed, particularly that of creating a new category of worker — “dependent contractor.”
I have a strong sense that the main focus of the Taylor report is not primarily the worker, but that more weight is given to consumers’ and employers’ interests, as when Matthew Taylor gave evidence to committee his responses indicated an anxiety that nothing should be introduced that “harmed” or “affected” consumers and employers in a negative way — even at the cost of improving workers’ rights.
He admitted his report had been influenced by the Treasury submission around costs. He also admitted that if he’d known that the Supreme Court was going to make a ruling against the government on employment tribunal fee costs then he would have been more robust in his report around the case for abolishing them.
This was quite a revelation in terms of how the report was produced — nothing too radical was evidently the starting point.
There was quite a contradiction when he was stating that “good” businesses shouldn’t fail because other businesses were prepared to run a more profit-driven exploitative model, but without any real concrete legislative changes or enforcement to support those companies that undertook good practice.
One of the more puzzling aspects of the report and evidence was stressing the importance of empowering workers through access to information and advice without once acknowledging the role of trade unions.
In many respects, the “choice” of employers is given priority throughout and not referencing the United Nations International Labour Organisation standards and the four pillars of decent work (employment creation, social protection, rights at work and social dialogue) is also a bit odd.
The research methodology, timeframe and resources available to produce the report all point to this being a bit of a fig leaf to hide the Tory government’s true stance and intentions towards workers and their rights which are more accurately reflected in the debates and passing of the Trade Union Bill (which the Taylor report doesn’t call for repealing).
The two Supreme Court rulings in favour of Unison this year on tribunal fees and the right to consultation also support the need for reform under the law. As yet, Britain has not consolidated a single statutory definition of the people to whom employment rights and duties apply.
Through the Supreme Court there is an emerging body of case law to support workers’ rights, in particular the landmark judgement in 2011 Autoclenz Limited v Belcher  UKSC 41, which makes it clear that just because signed contract documentation makes it look as if someone is self-employed, that is by no means the end of the story.
Employment tribunals must take into account the inequality of bargaining power between employer and employee, and must look at the whole context, not just the contract documents, to make sure the written contract document genuinely reflects what the parties intended the employment relationship to be.
I believe the time has come to secure legislation that takes these court judgements and uses them to clarify the nature and status of workers today, and that we should not overcomplicate the issue by pretending that the age-old struggle between labour and capital has magically vanished in the digital age.
The government is not and never will be the party of the workers, despite the good intent of one or two solitary members.
During the passage of the Trade Union Bill, in which I participated, the true intent and nature of government policy was revealed and written into Hansard for all to see — so much so that I wonder if that crackdown on workers’ rights didn’t go far enough for some members who would look fondly on the 18th and 19th-century legislation on employment, namely the Master and Servant Acts (designed to discipline employees and repress the combination of workers in trade unions), and would happily vote for their reintroduction.
I believe the time has come for an Act of Parliament to address the issue of precarious work.
n Chris Stephens is SNP MP for Glasgow South West. This article is adapted from his speech to Commons on his Workers Rights Ten Minute Rule Bill.