The perils of the gig economy and the increasing prevalence of insecure work have been intermittently on the political agenda for a number of years. But it is only with the coronavirus outbreak that the scandal of our fragmenting and fragile economy has really come to the fore. The government’s response so far has exposed its lack of understanding of how the economy has changed for millions of people over the last decade. There are many in work who are no longer connected to the state-backed safety net that used to cover nearly everyone with a job.
There has been a huge rise in low wage, insecure, atypical work, where risk has been almost completely transferred to the individual away from the employer. Exploitative business models have proliferated in recent years, and have often been given an exciting futuristic sheen by being collectively called “the gig economy” and trumpeting the benefits of flexibility. However, the reality for many is that these jobs ingrain insecurity and low pay, forcing, as Jeremy Corbyn put it at Prime Minister’s Questions this week to choose between “health and hardship”. Sadly, it has taken the risk of a pandemic for the government to realise that millions of people do actually face this choice of health or hardship on a regular basis because of the way these new working arrangements that have been allowed to grow unchecked.
It is now nearly three years since the government published the Taylor review, which was supposed to be the Tories’ response to the growing concern about the lack of regulation in these new working arrangements. The report was generally seen as a fairly tepid affair, which only tinkered at the edges. Even now, only a handful of the 50-plus recommendations in the report have actually been enacted, highlighting how little importance the Conservatives place on the issue. The government’s specific response so far to the coronavirus outbreak has also been inadequate and betrayed its lack of understanding of the scale of the issue. Statutory sick pay (SSP) from day one is an improvement on the previous position, but totally fails to recognise there are around two million people in various types of insecure or low-paid work that are still not covered.
Many of these jobs are in sectors where there is an increased risk of transmission; think of your couriers, Uber drivers, care workers and contract cleaners. It is even the case that some of the contracts under which people have to work effectively punish them, in terms of future opportunities, should they not be available for work – whatever the reason, never mind the loss of earnings suffered in the first place. The government’s emergency coronavirus legislation must guarantee that sick pay from day one will include those people who are not currently eligible for SSP, and that nobody on social security will be sanctioned if they miss appointments. And, of course, we are talking here about SSP that is currently a modest £94.25 a week. The more generous company contractual schemes don’t apply to this group of people – but it is also the case that over the last few decades many employers have systematically chipped away at terms and conditions, reducing the value of those previously better offers down to the level of SSP.
This spotlight on insecure work will hopefully strengthen the argument about the need for fundamental change in the way the world of work operates so that basic rights and protections enshrined as an absolute minimum. It is not just in the newer types of work where insecurity is endemic: a recent survey by UCU found that job security was the number one reason for their members to look to change their job. We need to push back against the creeping casualisation of the workforce across the whole economy, and defeat the false trade-off between flexibility and security so often advocated by those who stand to benefit most from exploitative arrangements. If we start with from the presumption that working for someone means you are an employee, with the accompanying rights, then we can begin to change the way people are treated at work, bringing in a new era of respect, dignity and security in the workplace.