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Taking back control . . . in the workplace

It’s time to reboot dignity and respect at work, says Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC.

Jess* lives in a small town in the north-west and is on a zero-hours contract. Some weeks she could work up to 50 hours, but others she works as few as 30. And when she got ill, her company refused to pay her sick pay. Sarah* is 38 and lives in a big city. She is employed through an agency and although she has worked more than 12 weeks for the same employer, she feels like she’ll never get the same status as permanent staff. She told the TUC: “I feel frustrated at the lack of permanent jobs in the market and how little control you have as an agency worker. Everything in my life feels temporary at the moment. My experience of agency working is that you are on the bottom rung. You can’t speak out or you won’t get work.”

Wherever you go in the UK, the story is the same. Too many working people are stuck in jobs that don’t offer enough pay or enough security to build a life on – in short, there’s not enough control. Working for the TUC, I hear these stories every week. Stories of workers who don’t know from one day to the next whether they’ll work that day. Working people in all sorts of jobs who can’t raise problems at work, because on today’s “flexible” contracts: the boss doesn’t need to sack you, he can just take away next week’s hours. Delivery drivers who have found themselves deactivated without warning. Warehouse pickers red-flagged by a gadget that decides they are too slow. And stories from careworkers whose work lives are governed by the ping of an app – but who never get enough time to meet their elderly clients’ needs.

This is the reality of work for too many people now. Isolated from colleagues and at the beck and call of their boss. Without the small measure of security granted by a permanent contract and some basic employment rights. It all leaves hard-working people with precious little dignity or control. The time is ripe for a new deal for working people – and that’s what must be on offer at this election.

For a start, as we leave the European Union, every party must guarantee that our rights at work don’t go backwards. Hard-won rights such as holiday pay and protection from pregnancy discrimination came from the EU. We can’t afford to lose these rights after we leave – and we need to know that they can’t be watered down on the quiet by judges or by parliament.

And in the years to come we have to make sure that hard-working Brits won’t miss out on new protections that Dutch, Spanish and German workers get. That’s why the final Brexit deal has to include a level playing field on workers’ rights – making sure they will always be as good as or better than what’s on offer to the rest of the EU.

Second, the rules to protect working people haven’t kept up with how working lives have changed. One in ten workers is already in insecure work – and if nothing changes, 290,000 more people will join them by the next general election in 2022. That’s the equivalent of 13 extra Sports Directs, or the entire working population of Sheffield.

These jobs don’t pay enough and they push all the risks on to the workers. Paying rent and bills can be a nightmare when you don’t know how much you’ve got coming in each month. Britain’s 900,000 zero-hours contract workers earn a third less per hour than the average worker. And every worker pushed into false self-employment loses their rights to sick pay and paid holiday. If Britain aspires to become a high-skill, high-productivity economy, the next government must drag the rules about work into the 21st century. Promising a review isn’t enough; every party must make real commitments to crack down on zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment, and make sure agency workers always get the going rate for the job.

And Britain still needs a pay rise. Rising inflation and slow wage growth means a new living standards crisis is coming. And we’re still in the longest pay squeeze since Victorian times: workers are on average over £1,000 worse off each year in real terms than they were in 2008. Over the coming parliament, the minimum wage needs a serious boost, so that it reaches £10 per hour as soon  as possible. We need to get more people covered by collective bargaining agreements that raise wages and skill levels. And it’s time for the government to stop artificially holding down public servants’ pay. By 2020, midwives and nurses will have seen their real pay fall by over £3,000 – scarcely the right reward for years of dedicated public service.

Of course, the best way to raise wages is to bring great jobs to every corner of the country. In both 2014 and 2015, London’s growth was double that of the average across the rest of the UK. We still lag behind our competitors on the infrastructure we need to help the whole country – such as modern transport links and fast broadband. And our investment in infrastructure is the lowest in the OECD. More than ever we need an industrial strategy that delivers good jobs to the parts of the UK where they’re needed most.

Improving the lives of ordinary working people and giving them back control of their rights – that’s what all of the major parties should be prioritising this election.

** Names have been altered to protect people’s anonymity.

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

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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.