British gig economy workers want job security in changing workplace

A recent government report concludes the 'dependent contractor' should receive additional protection. Unions are skeptical, saying the report is a feeble response to inequity.

Frank Augstein/AP
A deliveroo bicycle is shown on the street in London on Tuesday, July 11, 2017. A former adviser to Tony Blair is unveiling a report on the so-called gig economy, providing additional protection for workers in facing of vanishing job security.

Workers in the so-called gig economy, from Uber drivers to delivery cyclists, need greater labor protections, according to a much-anticipated report published Tuesday that was commissioned by the British government.

The study by Matthew Taylor, a former adviser to Tony Blair, concluded that a new category of worker – the "dependent contractor" – should be created to secure genuine flexibility for laborers.

While some workers in the gig economy like the flexibility, others suffer from job security in contracts that, for example, offer no guarantee on the number of hours to be worked. Such insecurity can make it hard, for example, to get a mortgage – even when someone is in regular work.

"There's nothing wrong with zero and low hours contracts but they should be a means to two-way flexibility, not a lazy way for those with market power to dump risk on those who lack that power," he said.

Mr. Taylor's report is considered to be an important piece of research in addressing the challenges of a quickly changing workplace. Taylor set out seven "principles for fair and decent work," including additional protections for workers suffering unfair, one-sided flexibility.

But he also issued what might be best described as a clarion call for respect in the workplace, bolstered by stronger incentives for firms to treat workers fairly.

"At its heart, this review is about the relationship between employers and the people who work for them," the report said. "We have heard many examples of excellent employment relations where the principles of quality work are woven into the fabric of the corporate ethos. We have also heard accounts of poor management practices which make people's working lives miserable."

Unions have sharply criticized the report, describing it as a lost opportunity to address inequity and a feeble response to the growing number of workers in delivery and ride-hailing firms such as Deliveroo and Uber. Union leaders wanted recommendations matched with legal sanctions.

"I worry that many gig economy employers will be breathing a sigh of relief this morning." TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said. "From what we've seen, this review is not the game-changer needed to end insecurity and exploitation at work."

At the report's launch in London, Prime Minister Theresa May promised that the 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."

She warned, though, that the flexibility could not be one-sided.

"Our response to the changing world of work cannot be to try to stop the clock," she said. "We are an open, innovative economy and we must remain that way."

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