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Our growing ‘gig economy’ just got a warning shot to improve worker rights, and the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ may see the start of a mass removal of many more. Quite a week.
The two landmark events are connected: The Taylor review into changing working practices, which wants to create the idea of ‘dependent contractors’, and the so-called repeal bill (officially the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill), with its repatriation of powers, will both shape our working future.
But as what? Are we to be a beacon to light regulation and even lighter economic security? Or are we going to be a place where employment rights are protected and enhanced?
It could go either way. The Prime Minister tellingly offered nothing specific in response to Taylor, and neither has she given decent assurances that more than 40 years of EU legislation currently woven into the fabric of our life will not be unstitched. Many of the laws deal with employment rights.
And in the background of this mosaic is the promise of what President Trump called a ‘very big, very powerful’ trade deal with the United States. Queasy? Me too. Good for whom? As Mr Trump will clearly be putting America first, that leaves us second.
It will be disappointing if the Prime Minister, weakened as she is by a cross, confused electorate, fails to implement the reasonable recommendations put forward by Matthew Taylor to improve rights for those ‘self-employed’ by digital giants. It would send an important signal.
The global economy has changed for ever, but that distracts from what is the real issue. Namely, that capitalism remains the same from generation to generation: a tension between employer and worker.
Both want to make money off the other. The big tech giants disrupting patterns of business are no different to those industrial titans of the Nineteenth Century who harnessed mass production. They cannot merely exempt themselves from social obligations, most bitterly fought for over generations, simply because they know a technical way to do so.
Equally, self-employment is more than a choice or a trick, not something to be given elastic definitions based on some fiscal expediency. It has real tax implications that affect us all; for example, reducing the Treasury’s take from both those businesses whose model is only to employ the self-employed, and from the ‘self-employed’ themselves. That money has to come from somebody else or public services must drop.
Flexible working may be a personal choice, or a euphemism for institutionalised exploitation, but it is also clearly a tax problem. Matthew Taylor offered a very reasonable way forward for the gig economy, and it is less than satisfactory that we have politicians unable to support it with more than words
Meanwhile, The repeal bill, which dumps the legislation that took us into the EU and ceded sovereignty to its laws, may see a further change in employment rights. Not now, perhaps. But soon.
The danger is that the broadly evolved European social model, which has helped draw the sting out of once poisonous industrial relations in the UK through dialogues between unions and employers across the EU, is lost. Instead, we could see a return to that uniquely British polarisation that caused us to be the ‘sick man of Europe’ for so long .
The repeal must not be allowed to open up a return to that time, but instead help us stand out as a place in which enlightened business should feel encouraged to invest once we have left the EU. Part of the deal is that the social contract between employed and employer must be respected.
Although work is never quite at the front of minds in summer, we should make an exception this year. There is a great deal at stake.
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