Gig economy adviser 'regrets' delays improving UK workers' rights

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·4-min read
Prime Minister Theresa May with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as she holds the first Cabinet meeting since the General Election with her reshuffled team at 10 Downing Street in London.
Prime minister Boris Johnson when he was a minister in Theresa May's government. Photo: PA

The UK government has been “far too slow” to boost insecure workers’ rights almost four years after promising reform, according to a think tank.

The Resolution Foundation, the government’s own job tsar and Labour all told Yahoo Finance UK the government should not delay plans to compensate workers for cancelled shifts any further.

Matthew Taylor, who led a government review of modern working practices and the gig economy, spoke of his “regret” the government had still not formally responded to its own consultation on reforms.

Former prime minister Theresa May had ordered the Taylor review in 2016. It came amid rising use and controversy over zero-hour contracts, and the growth of tech platforms offering flexible but insecure ‘gig’ work.

Her administration then promised the “largest upgrade in workers’ rights in a generation,” and while some reforms have come into force since, others are still far from the statute book.

READ MORE: Law could force firms to compensate workers for cancelled shifts

A consultation ran last year on two new measures—a right to reasonable notice of working hours, and a right to compensation for shifts cancelled without such notice.

But prime minister Boris Johnson’s government is yet to confirm its next steps despite the consultation ending last October, more than five months before Britain went into lockdown. A government spokesperson declined to signal when a response might be published.

Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow business secretary, urged ministers to “prevent exploitation and give people the security they deserve” as lockdown eases.

“The government’s delay in addressing the issues faced by those on non-guaranteed hours contracts has had a huge effect on people's livelihoods both before and during the pandemic,” said Labour’s former leader.

He added that many on flexible contracts had also “fallen through the cracks” of government income support during lockdown.

READ MORE: Competition grows for low-paid jobs as lay-offs mount

The reforms were intended to give workers without guaranteed hours more predictability in their lives and finances. The Low Pay Commission, the government body which proposed them following Taylor’s review, said they would address the “one-sided flexibility” that often works better for firms than workers.

A study by the Resolution Foundation last week highlighted the difference the proposals could make. It said control over the timing of work is “far more of a priority” for working people than the amount of work and leisure time they had.

“Complaints about short-notice changes to shifts, a lack of flexibility from some employers around time off, and around workloads being too great to be finished in the time available were commonplace,” it said after carrying out focus groups and a survey of UK workers.

Ed Miliband MP pictured speaking at a fringe event, 'Inequality in 21st Century Britain', organised by the Resolution Foundation, at the Labour Party annual conference in the ACC Centre, Liverpool. Picture date: Sunday September 23rd, 2018. Photo credit should read: Matt Crossick/ EMPICS Entertainment.
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband. Photo: Matt Crossick/EMPICS Entertainment

Yahoo Finance UK also revealed official estimates last year that more than 1.1 million workers receive no payment when shifts are scrapped. Insecure workers lose an average of 150 hours of work a year in cancelled shifts, according to government analysis.

George Bangham, an economist at the foundation, said unpredictable hours made weekly budgeting and childcare difficult.

“While the government has consulted on a new right to request a more predictable and stable contract, progress has been far too slow, and there is a risk that ‘requests’ are too easy to reject,” he said.

He said ministers should be “bolder,” and give workers a minimum of two weeks’ notice for shifts, a new right to a stable contract and premium pay for overtime.

READ MORE: Conservative peer tells UK government to ditch benefit cuts next year

Such reforms would limit flexibility for employers and be likely to prove controversial with many businesses, however. Official papers suggest they could cost employers as much as £2bn ($2.6bn) a year, depending on how ‘reasonable’ notice is defined and how far employers adjust to avoid compensation costs.

Taylor, also head of the RSA charity and now the government’s labour market enforcement tsar, acknowledged the government had a lot on its plate.

“Of course the government is facing urgent priorities right now, but I regret that they are taking so long to respond to the Low Pay Commission’s entirely sensible proposals,” he said.

READ MORE: Almost a million workers are on zero-hour contracts

Both Brexit and the coronavirus have forced ministers and civil servants to shift considerable resources away from other policy areas in recent months and years.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said: “The government has consulted on proposals to address issues with non-guaranteed hours contracts, including on introducing compensation for short-notice shift cancellations and a right to reasonable notice of shifts.

“We are analysing the consultation responses and will respond in due course.”