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  • International Workplace
  • 23 January 2018
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MP proposes Bill to define status of workers

Chris Stephens, MP for Glasgow South West, has proposed a Bill to define the status of workers in law; to refine the current definitions in light of recent Supreme Court judgments; and to provide greater protection from day one of a person’s employment, eliminating zero-hours contracts and providing greater protection for those in precarious work, such as in the hospitality sector.

The Workers (Definition and Rights) Bill 2017-19 was introduced to Parliament on 18 October 2017 and underwent its second reading on 19 January 2018. Its introduction is timely, given numerous recent cases around worker status, and the publication of the Taylor Review last year, which explored the gig economy and other new forms of work.

In his motion to introduce the new Bill, Stephens said:

“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, there has been a growing sense of outrage that hard work is not properly rewarded.

“Far from addressing an unbalanced economy that rewards failure so long as it is on a global scale, the Government have clung to the supremacy of the market over workers’ rights. However, all the evidence shows that a healthy economy values workers and that achieving the correct balance between profit and reward is the biggest spur to long-term growth instead of short-term profit.

“In many ways, there is a false narrative about the modern world of work that suggests that 21st-century technology has created a different dynamic and that workers have to adapt to be more flexible and more open to different ways of working, leaving behind outdated notions of security and guaranteed reward. The clear implication is that full-time secure employment with rights, a pension and clearly defined hours is an outdated 20th-century concept, instead of the peak of a hard-fought struggle to redress the balance between employer and employee – or, at its most extreme, exploiter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 the issue in stark terms. We need to stand up and take on the siren voices that 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 is not nailed down in legislation and enforced, there will always be employers who 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 would bring some clarity to the definition of “worker” by defining what rights are available and consolidating 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 about the issues currently being explored by Committees following the Taylor report.

“The Taylor report is useful in one sense: workers’ rights are front and centre. With Brexit on the horizon, we should all be aware of how easily the 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 proposed solutions, particularly that of creating a new category of worker – “dependent contractor.” I have a strong sense that the Taylor report’s main focus is not primarily the worker. It gives more weight to the interests of consumers and employers; when Mr Taylor gave evidence in Committee his responses indicated an anxiety that nothing should be introduced that “harmed” or “affected” consumers and employers in a negative way, even if it improves workers’ rights.

“One of the more puzzling aspects of the report and Mr Taylor’s evidence was the stress on 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. It is odd that the United Nations International Labour Organisation standards and the four pillars of decent work – employment creation, social protection, rights at work and social dialogue – are not referenced.

“The UK has not yet consolidated a single statutory definition of the people to whom employment rights and duties apply. Through the Supreme Court there is already an emerging body of case law to support workers’ rights, in particular the landmark 2011 judgment in Autoclenz Ltd v. Belcher, which makes it clear that just because signed contract documentation makes it look as if a person 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 they must look at the whole context to ensure the written contract document genuinely reflects what the parties intended the employment relationship to be.

“The time has come to secure legislation that uses the court judgments to clarify the nature and status of workers today. 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 Conservative party is not, and never will be, the party of the workers, despite the good intent adhered to or advocated by one or two well-meaning Members. During the passage of the Trade Union Act, in which I participated, the true intent and nature of government policy was revealed and written into Hansard for all to see. I wonder whether the crackdown on workers’ rights goes far enough for some Members, who look fondly on 18th and 19th-century employment legislation – namely, the Master and Servant Acts designed to discipline employees and repress the combination of workers in trade unions – and whether they would happily vote for their reintroduction. However, I believe that is a minority viewpoint.

“The time has come for an Act of Parliament to address the issue of precarious work, and I commend this Bill to the House.”

You can monitor the progress of this Bill at https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2017-19/workersdefinitionandrights.html