For many UK workers, insecurity is not a new problem, but one that the pandemic has both exposed and deepened. The weakness of employment rights and the imbalance of power between workers and bosses has gone unaddressed for too long. Throughout the pandemic, the devastating consequences of unsafe working conditions, financial insecurity and the lack of a strong worker voice have made the need for urgent change clear.
Yet the government has shown no intention of making this change. It has ditched its long-promised employment bill. Over the past 16 months, a lack of clarity about safe working practices and weak enforcement of health and safety laws have endangered workers on the frontline and resulted in thousands of avoidable deaths.
Millions of workers have had no access to statutory sick pay, both worsening the impact of the pandemic and exacerbating financial insecurity. In-work poverty is the highest it has been this century, with one in six working families on the poverty line. Approximately 3.6 million people are in insecure work, meaning they don’t know when they will work or how much they will earn.
A root cause of this is the UK’s system of separate employment statuses. Under the present system, there are four different groups: employees, workers who are registered as self-employed but provide a service as part of someone else’s business (otherwise known as “limb (b) workers”), agency workers and employees. Each group has different rights, which means that millions of people are denied the basic rights and protections that many of us take for granted.
Employees are entitled to all the statutory rights, so long as they have been employed for long enough. Limb (b) workers receive only some of the rights that employees do, such as the national minimum wage and paid holidays. But they have no protection from unfair dismissal and don’t have the right to request flexible working, among other rights.
Then there are bogus self-employed workers. Because these workers are technically self-employed, they are not entitled to the national minimum wage, paid holidays or even some health and safety protections. This system allows bad employers to falsely categorise workers as “self employed”, with fewer rights and protections. This practice is endemic across the gig economy, which has ballooned in size and now accounts for about 5 million people, many of whom are being exploited and left to fight through the courts to establish their rights.
Everyone deserves security at work. This is why Labour has committed to creating a single status of “worker” for everyone but the genuinely self-employed, removing qualifying periods for basic protections to give workers rights in their job from day one.
Under these plans all workers would receive sick pay, national minimum wage entitlement, holiday pay, paid parental leave, a right to flexible working as a default and protection against unfair dismissal. Alongside our commitment to extend statutory sick pay to the self-employed, this would make 6.1 million additional working people eligible to claim the benefit.
Creating a single status of “worker” would ensure all working people receive fair pay, job security and dignity. But it’s still not a magic bullet. Exploitative practices such as firing and rehiring must be outlawed; zero-hours contracts must be banned; we need a real living wage of at least £10 an hour and workers must be given the right to a regular contract that reflects their usual hours. And for people to have a genuine voice at work, trade unions must be empowered to represent their members and to organise and bargain for working people.
As a country, we have a choice: we can either continue with a broken economic model that denies workers basic rights, see further growth in insecure work and a continuing stagnation of wages, or we can seize the recovery as an opportunity to build a society where everyone is entitled to fair pay, job security and dignity at work. Work should be a pillar on which we can build our lives, not an obstacle. Everyone needs and deserves improved living standards and economic security. A new deal for working people has never been more urgent.
Andy McDonald is the Labour MP for Middlesbrough, and has been the shadow secretary for employment rights and protections since April 2020