Prisca Bradley: Workplace reforms do not go far enough

Prisca Bradley

In December last year, the government unveiled a range of workplace reforms to improve the rights of workers on zero-hour contracts, agency employees and those working in the gig economy.

The announcement of greater rights for those operating in the gig economy will be welcomed by the 1.1 million workers in this sector, with agency workers to be paid the same as permanent employees, something that has been planned for some time.

However, there have been a host of recent court cases involving gig economy organisations, such as Uber and Deliveroo, in which contractors have fought for basic rights like holiday pay and the national minimum wage. This demonstrates the significant imbalance of power between contractor and employer and, therefore, the need for greater controls and protection for modern day workers’ rights.

The type of ‘flexibility’ offered by the gig economy is not a panacea for the so-called rigidity of modern employment relationships; many individuals are unaware of the rights they forego when entering into these types of contracts, or have no ability to negotiate anything different.

The government’s new workplace reforms do go some way to addressing these imbalances, but they do not go far enough; although more detail will be provided before April 2020 when the majority of the proposed regulations will come into force. The tribunal system is already creaking under the strain of a significant increase in claims since the abolition of fees. The government could have been more robust, stemming further litigation around zero-hour contracts by banning them outright.

The unions are, unsurprisingly, concerned at the lack of union recognition and collective consultation for those who work for gig enterprises, while widespread concern continues over poor working conditions.

On a positive note for workers, organisations will now have to provide a ‘statement of rights’ on the first day of employment, setting out entitlements to paid leave, including for illness, maternity and paternity. Calculations for holiday pay will be based on 52 weeks, as opposed to 12 weeks, so workers affected by fluctuations in hours will be treated more fairly in respect of paid time off.

On the subject of the right to request guaranteed working hours, this is likely to be a ‘paper’ right only; the imbalance of power and the fear of negative repercussions will mean many vulnerable workers simply will not ask. Just as the current right to request flexible working, introduced several years ago, has yet to revolutionise the employment landscape, this right to request secure hours is not expected to have any real impact.

To bring about real change and to ensure minimum rights for all workers, a more robust legislative framework is needed, as is a reconsideration of the legitimacy of zero-hours contracts for lower paid workers, who tend to lose out, especially when faced with a lack of strong union representation.

It may be that, in addition to the proposed reforms, the growth in ethically informed consumer purchasing choices and an increasing backlash against worker exploitation will transform the gig economy of today into the secure workforce of tomorrow.

Prisca Bradley is director and head of employment at Hedges Law