The coalition needs to get its line straight on Romania and Bulgaria

Nick Clegg contradicts Iain Duncan Smith and says that the government has estimated the number of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants expected next year.

Has the government estimated the number of Romanians and Bulgarians expected to emigrate to the UK next year? At the moment, it depends who you ask. Following a freedom of information request by the NS, Eric Pickles's department told me last week that it "holds" the information but was deciding whether "the public interest in withholding [the figure]...outweighs the public interest in disclosing it". Following an identical FOI to the Home Office, I was similarly told that a figure could be released after an "internal review". 

But in an appearance on The Andrew Marr Show last Sunday, Iain Duncan Smith suggested that no  figure existed. Here's the transcript.

 

Eddie Mair:
… estimates of Romanians and Bulgarians who might come here. It’s one thing not to 
release them, but have they been compiled?
 
Iain Duncan Smith:
Not to my knowledge. 
 
Eddie Mair:
You haven’t seen any statistics?
 
Iain Duncan Smith:
No, no, no, I’ve asked whether or not there is any reasonable or rational figure that 
can be gained. And to be honest with you, the last government got it so badly wrong, 
it just shows you that estimating the numbers coming through is incredibly difficult.
 
To complete the confusion, Nick Clegg said this morning on his LBC phone-in show that he had "seen estimates but they are estimates". He added: "I don’t think we as a government should start bandying about estimates which at the moment are not very precise."
 
It's easy to see why the government is reluctant to release an estimate. If the figure is higher-than-expected, it will be attacked from the right for "losing control" of immigration (and will be powerless to act since EU law guarantees the free movement of people). If the figure is lower-than-expected, it runs the risk of suffering a similar fate to Labour, which mistakenly forecast that just 13,000 people a year would migrate from eastern Europe to the UK after 2004 (300,000 did). But to have any credibility, minister should really agree whether one exists. 
A protester waves a Romanian 1989 Revolution flag during a protest at Piata Universitatii square. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.