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GLASGOW West MP Chris Stephens is hopeful that a draft Bill he intends to push through Parliament could strike a blow for ordinary people against the nightmare world of insecure work.
The Workers’ Definition and Rights Bill, due to be published in the next few days, is a bid to simplify the status of workers and employees, making it harder for bosses to cheat people of their rights using bogus self-employment and so-called flexible contracts.
“We’ve had a number of tribunal wins — Pimlico Plumbers or Uber,” the Scottish National Party MP tells the Morning Star, pointing to court rulings that rejected those companies’ assertion that their workers were really independent contractors.
“But despite that, precarious work is on the rise.” The use of zero-hours contracts has soared since the Conservatives came to power, with 2016 seeing a 20 per cent rise.
The rise slowed in 2017, partly because campaigning by trade unions including Unite and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union against their use by high street brands such as Sports Direct and McDonald’s embarrassed employers and led some to try to avoid the bad publicity the contracts generate. But the slowdown could have been misleading.
For one thing, unscrupulous bosses are not above declaring their intention to stop using zero-hours contracts and then carrying on anyway, “return[ing] to the bad old days once the spotlight has gone away,” in the words of Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner.
For another, some firms simply replaced them with “short-hours contracts,” which sometimes guaranteed as little as an hour’s work — leaving workers just as unable to plan for the future or manage their money as before.
While employers often claim people want these contracts and they are only used where both boss and worker are after flexibility, they are widely deployed wherever managers can get away with it — in a Glasgow case Stephens recounts, an organist in a crematorium was found to be on zero-hours, “when if there’s one person you’d expect to have regular hours it’s surely that organist.”
Stephens’s Bill looks at working hours themselves (“Every worker shall be entitled to fixed and regular weekly hours on commencing employment”) but also tackles a host of related issues — such as requiring management to give reasonable notice of shifts and to pay workers for agreed shifts that are subsequently cancelled.
“In my own constituency there was a Green Day concert cancelled on the day,” Stephens says. “Of course it was bad news for the people who’d bought tickets.
“But it was bad too for all the people who’d shown up and weren’t going to get paid — you had all these people hanging about the park. For one thing they weren’t paid, for another they had to wait until midnight to get transport home.”
People turning up and finding that their shift has been cancelled has been a growing problem in Scotland, he says, and an increasing focus of trade union work.
“The purpose of this Bill is to effectively abolish zero-hours contracts — so they can only be in place where there is an agreement to that effect with a recognised trade union.”
It also proposes remedies for the risks taken by workers whose employment is outsourced, so “where a contractor absconds or ceases trading the principal employer is liable.”
Stephens points to the case of a hairdresser working in a Hilton hotel who upped and left — leaving staff with nobody to claim wages from. Part 6 of the Bill, Liability for Unpaid Wages, would give workers the right to claim what they’re owed.
It adopts “the principle of supply chain liability in the event of failure,” Institute of Employment Rights (IER) president Keith Ewing observes.
“Where a company defaults on its wages, liability will be picked up by a customer or supplier of the defaulting employer, who will be sued as if it were the primary employer.
“Companies should take more responsibility for whom they contract with (by more effective due diligence) and workers should never be left without a remedy when wages and other financial benefits are unpaid.”
Stephens is aware that trade union action, rather than legislation in Parliament, is the first line of defence for working people, and does point out that “unions in Scotland have been quick to respond” to these abuses.
But a tougher legal framework is still needed as the use of zero-hours is spreading way beyond popular concepts of the “gig economy.” They are now widely used in the public sector, particularly in fields such as further education.
If the Tories maintain their grip on power they could be extended into other key parts of national infrastructure, as hinted at by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling last month when he proposed replacing rural bus services with “Uber-style rides.”
Stephens worked closely with the IER on the Bill, which is backed by the general council of the Scottish TUC.
Ewing ties the “very important” piece of legislation into the wider IER Manifesto for Labour Law, which was launched in 2016 by shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who has pledged its recommendations will be enacted by a Jeremy Corbyn government.
Stephens’s Bill looks at “the fundamental question of the scope of employment protection, minimum wage and holiday pay legislation — all the more crucial in view of the growing disintegration of the standard employment relationship and the growth of precarious and irregular employment,” Ewing says.
“Chris Stephens follows the IER position that all rights should be universal in their application: if you provide labour for another, you should be protected by the country’s labour law, unless of course you are genuinely running your own business.”
He also reckons the Bill will be an effective weapon against the “scourge” of zero-hours contracts: “This has got to stop and management has to take responsibility for its workers.
“Labour is not a commodity, in the famous words of the International Labour Organisation, and it is time that principle is recognised in this country again.
“It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the Bill in this respect. Every worker will be entitled to fixed and regular hours of work, with swingeing penalties for employers who fail to honour this principle.
“Any flexibility needed by the employer with the agreement of workers will be available only with the consent of a recognised trade union through collective bargaining — to provide maximum protection for workers and an incentive to employers to recognise.”
Ewing believes the Bill will take a “long step towards eliminating the commodification of labour in the modern British economy, where workers are treated like any other commodity, ‘no more, no less’,” in the words of Marx.
Stephens says it has received support from Labour, including from McDonnell. But why push it through now? Surely he doesn’t expect a Conservative government to tolerate such an advance of working people’s rights?
“I think the parliamentary arithmetic is such that we can push through and get wins on workers’ rights,” the MP argues.
“I think if we can get it debated there’s a chance we can get it passed. There is a real opportunity given the weakness of the government, and MPs should be putting forward their ideas.”
IER director Carolyn Jones agrees — and congratulates Stephens on “an excellent initiative.” But there are limits, she says, to what we can achieve with Theresa May in Downing Street.
“The IER supports this Bill. But we believe only the full implementation of our Manifesto for Labour Law will address the many problems facing workers and young people.
“For that we need to get this disastrous Tory government out and put Jeremy into power. The sooner the better!”
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