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Matthew Taylor has come in for a pasting on social media. But the contribution his report makes is a worthwhile one and at the very least moves the debate onto territory that could prove fertile. As Gavin Kelly of the Resolution Foundation tweeted “First time I can recall the main parties debating what it would take to raise the quality of work in Britain. So overdue”
Yes the report It doesn’t give us a lot what we hoped, or wanted or needed, but then these reports never, ever do.
If there is a fundamental, almost fatal, flaw, it is the contradiction at the heart of this issue: with no legislative reform envisaged, it will be down to trade unions to enforce or implement the Taylor proposals. But these traditional vehicles of collective organising – lauded as one of the foundations for good work (see checklist below) – have been supressed and constrained. That’s a circle that can’t be squared.
This, though, is a very black-and-white view. I think the report is rather more nuanced than that. Take the following, “the best of Taylor” if you please:
- The weakness of individualism is recognised (p26) and “The current system puts too much onus on the individual to assert that they are being exploited, which for obvious reasons many find difficult to do” (Nick Denys quote highlighted on p61)
- Collective representation is explicitly stated as a foundation for good work (p12)
- New laws on employment status are recommended (p40)
- “Employers must not use flexible working models simply to reduce costs and must consider the impact on their workforce in terms of increased sickness rates and reduced productivity” (p42)
- The Low Pay Commission (LPC) should be asked to consider the design and impacts of the introduction of a higher National Minimum Wage (NMW) rate for hours that are not guaranteed as part of the contract.( p44)
- Government should create an obligation on employment tribunals to consider the use of aggravated breach penalties and costs orders if an employer has already lost an employment status case on broadly comparable facts – punishing those employers who believe they can ignore the law. (p 63)
- End Pay-By-Assignment agency contracts (p 64)
- The need for government to “take ownership” of a change agenda is the lead item in the section on Embedding Change (p103). Government has also to “remain vigilant and proactively engagewhere market conditions could lead to a greater risk of exploitation” and “ensure the forthcoming modern Industrial Strategy makes the most of the opportunities a more productive workforce can deliver, especially in lower paid, and lower skilled sectors” (p102)
- The notion of a transferrable skills passport that a worker will take from job-to-job is floated (p87)
- In a distinct nod to sector-level strategic planning and standard setting, “The LPC should work with employers and worker representatives to ensure sector-specific codes of practice and guidance are developed that support the provision of quality work “ (p108) and “the LPC should promote what works in sectors and encourage greater collaboration to improve quality work in low-paying areas.”(p109)
Admittedly there are areas of disappointment. Despite a strong commentary, the recommendations on Worker Voice, on p 55, are in my view weak. And it is great to see recognition for the US-based Co-worker initiative, but to place it in the section on self-employment misses its point. The potential mis-use of and deliberate misleading presentation of statistics on apprenticeships has already been called out by Alison Fuller and Lorna Unwin in response to a controversial analysis from the government minister responsible. And to spin a desired end to cash payments as the standout recommendation suggests a deliberate attempt to divert attention.
I suspect Taylor has been getting in the neck, as they say, for producing a marmalade report when something more marmite was expected/desired. This is an incremental approach, light-but-not-devoid of legislation, working through existing government agencies that would need to be strengthened. I am sure he felt this approach offed the best prospects for success.
Because if you take all of the “good bits” and actually implement them, then there would indeed be a significant and positive change in the quality of work and level of output.
And there is the problem. All that stuff about government “taking ownership”. Just not credible. No sign of any interest and a track record from the PM of talking like Macron but acting more like Trump.
So what do we do and how do we respond? An excellent analysis by Unions 21 Director Becky Wright highlights the implementation gap and reminds us that it is collective action leading to legislative change (rather than the other way round) that has always been responsible for positive changes in working life. The very same collective action that appears just fleetingly and in the margins of the report.
And Theresa May’s credibility gap on this is now a chasm. Her widely trailed comment, “I am clear that this government will act to ensure that the interests of employees on traditional contracts, the self-employed and those people working in the ‘gig’ economy are all properly protected.” is either delusional or deceitful. Or, in truth, both.
This is because her government simply currently does not have the means to deliver the ideas and proposals Taylor recommends. Nor is there any intention of establishing them. Nor could the PM promise to do so even if she desired to. In fact all the indications are to the contrary, and the Trade Union Act, supported by the so-called Lobbying Act, is a dead–weight on the ability of workers to combine in support of a better deal at work. It seems, then, that the proper protection is of the sort afforded to Christians thrown into the Coliseum with Lions in Ancient Rome.
So the call by my former GS, Dave Ward, for a new type of joined-up trade unionism is crucial. Such a new approach would leave the union movement best placed to show the difference we can make to a range of terms and conditions, from basic pay to maternity leave. Give “Dependent Contractors” a floor of rights, and the trade union movement can act as an elevator.
But what Taylor has also done by calling time on fake self-employment is to push platform-based organisations like Deliveroo and Uber ever closer to the status of employers.
So we have workers with rights and benefits all derived from the organisation they are dependent on for their work. Sounds like a bargaining unit and the basis for collective bargaining to me. Let’s just hope the Central Arbitration Council see things the same way.
The emerging evidence from the TUC’s Young Core Workers project shows that recognition of trade unions and empathy with a collective approach to employment issues is at a very low level. We need to set aside that post-war Balkanised view of the landscape that still seems to dictate our trade union structures. It is simply not helpful in navigating the new world of work and distracts us from concentrating on getting people interested in, engaged with and supportive of trade unionism as a pre-cursor to, possibly, joining a specific union.
That’s a job that can only be done by the TUC and then only if affiliates give it the space and resource to make it happen. It’s not rocket science, but failure to act in this way will have existential consequences.