We need to put the changing world of work back in the spotlight

Published on Jobs, Skills and Pay

Angst over diminishing attention spans is widespread these days, with the reaction to Twitter’s expansion to 280 characters a case in point. That’s long been true in politics: even the most important of issues need a regular drumbeat to maintain public interest. And it certainly applies to the problems highlighted by the Taylor Review of modern workplace practices. That’s why the BEIS and Work and Pensions Committees’ report today – and the legislation it puts forward – is so welcome.

The report finds much common-ground with the Taylor Review: ending the Swedish Derogation that allows unfavourable treatment of agency staff; introducing a requirement to provide a statement of terms and conditions on a person’s first day at work; and extending regulations to make it easier for employee voices to be heard in the workplace. A small minority of firms may grumble but these shifts are reasonable and should provide more people with better terms and conditions and an enhanced say in their workplace.

Just as interesting however are the points on which the Committees’ report diverges from the Taylor Review. The latter’s suggestion of piece rates for ‘platform workers’ was viewed by the Committees as potentially undermining existing entitlements to the National Living Wage. Matthew Taylor, whose Review was seeking to confront the tension between minimum wages and firms offering individuals flexibility to choose when and where to work, himself acknowledged the potential shortcomings of a policy “in danger of being too clever by half”. But this is because it views the issue primarily through the world of apps and big data, seeking to change the minimum wage rules for some workers (who are already entitled to the minimum wage) in the gig economy.

We instead recommended strengthening rather than weakening the minimum wage – by extending it to some of those totally outside current low pay protection who are independently self-employed, can substitute in someone else but who have little control over the rate they earn. This could include the flashier end of the gig economy but also those – like hairdressers, gardeners or plumbers – who have never met an app in their working lives but would still benefit from greater protection.

When it comes to the most potentially transformative policy in the Taylor Review – a higher minimum wage for non-guaranteed hours – today’s report offers cautious backing. It recognises potential concerns around increasing complexity in the minimum wage system and calls for a pilot among large firms.

It is also worth noting that the focus on large firms would mark a break from labour market regulation in the UK where for the most part the same rules apply for big and small firms alike. US cities have treated companies differently depending on how many employees they have, with for instance the biggest firms in Seattle moving to a $15 minimum wage years before their smaller counterparts. Depending on the premium, the impact itself may well be limited but the view that, when it comes to regulation, size matters would be a departure.

On the substance of the policy, rather than the firms it applies to, there is still a lot of questions to answer; first and foremost how big should the premium be and how far up the pay ladder should it reach? This is an area where broader policy debate and options, rather than immediate legislation, would be valuable. And that’s something we’ll be turning to shortly after the Budget.

As helpful as these moves would be, there remains a range of other concerns not touched upon. The report rarely stretches beyond those issues raised in the Taylor Review, which, as we’ve discussed before, overlooks some big questions. While a premium may have some impact, an issue we’ve raised in the past is the right to move from a zero-hours (or short-hours) contract to one that better reflects actual working hours. Another issue that has begun to be addressed in the US and which emerged as a common complaint in recent RF focus groups with low-paid workers in the UK – irregular shift scheduling – doesn’t feature.

Despite these gaps, today’s joint Select Committee report echoes many of the sensible recommendations made by the Taylor Review back in July. For those of us with short attention spans, let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long for the government’s response to these issues and action to enhance protection for more workers.