British MP Frank Field demands action on Injustice in Gig Economy

British MP, Frank Field has demanded for the government to place focus on the “rampant injustice” faced by workers in the gig economy as well as develop protection policies and laws that would ensure that workers are protected from mistreatment. The gig economy encompasses workers who are full time independent contractors. In some cases, workers are small business owners and in others, they are freelancers who are paid to complete projects for large organizations. In his recent published report, Field decried the injustice faced by workers in this category, imploring the government to take actions and include them in new policies that are to be developed.

Mr Field, who is a chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, has called for the introduction of a single labour market regulator, as well as changes in employment tribunals. This procedure is one way he believes workers under the gig economy can be protected from mistreatment by their employers. His report says that there has been evidence that some companies continue to exploit gig workers whom they wrongly termed as “independent workers”, pointing out that “unions are caught up in court cases that are ongoing for over seven years”.

He argued that if gig economy workers had laws and policies that protected them like most workers, they wouldn’t be having to deal with cases of being underpaid, or missing out on holiday pay. If they do face incidences of breaches in their contracts, it would be easier for tribunals to pass out the right judgements on employers who commit the breach.

Companies, like Uber, have faced charges twice, in which they won one appeal and lost the other, for underpaying their gig workers because they are “independent workers”. There was also the case of Gary Smith, a heating engineer from Kent who lost a bid to claim £74,000 in holiday pay, despite spending years to prove that he is a “worker” who is entitled to benefits like holiday pay. This is as a result of the fact that there are practically no enforcement mechanisms that prevent gig workers from being classified as “independent contractors” and subjected to bogus forms of self-employment.

According to the report, laws governing work in the gig economy are inadequate and not strong enough to prevent rampant injustice faced by gig workers. Field proposes that employment tribunals should be given powers to fast track worker status cases, thereby ensuring that gig workers are classified correctly. Policies should be put in place to tag gig workers as “workers” after a certain period of working for a particular company, so they can enjoy benefits attached to being a worker just like permanent workers do. He also proposes that tribunal findings should be applied on a company wide basis. This would ensure that companies would not have the allowance to argue that they can’t engage in a widespread reform because findings only relate to individuals involved.

A lot of companies classify gig workers as “independent contractors” because they’ve seen it as a technique to escape having to cover the cost of employees. Companies, like Uber, have faced charges and lost an appeal to keep classifying their gig workers as independent contractors have had to reform their wage bill. They have had to change working hours for their drivers as well as make changes in payment of minimum wage and holiday pay to gig workers. Employment tribunals placing their focus on companies who have chosen to not treat gig workers like their permanent workers would help to reduce the gap between the financial status of these workers.

Figures have shown that one in eight workers are now classified as poor. Although there would be an increase in minimum wage from £7.83 to £8.21 in April, an estimated £3.1 billion in wages went unpaid in 2016 and a large percentage of these was holiday pay. Even with the increase, a lot of gig workers still wouldn’t adequately benefit from the increase if reforms are not made to ensure that they enjoy the benefits to be gained from the increase.

The government’s proposed introduction of the Good Work Plan is set on giving greater protection to workers should also encompass gig workers too. Although, the government has begun making moves in reviewing, and making reforms which enable a single labour market enforcement body, MPs and workers’ rights groups have become frustrated by the pace of action. In 2017, the Work and Pensions Select Committee and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee prepared a draft legislation which is intended to close loopholes that allow “irresponsible companies” to underpay workers.

Quite frankly, since it’s gained popularity since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the gig economy has become a major player in providing a task-based labour. It is a sector that produces a large percentage of the UK workforce. Although gig economy workers already enjoy flexible working hours because of the nature of the services they provide, many workers still have to work for long hours every week and but don’t benefit from basic employment rights such as holiday pay. These reforms are seeking to contribute in the UK government’s efforts to remain a country that supports enforcing the protection of workers’ rights protection, thereby ensuring they remain leading in their efforts to conform to changes that are occurring in the workforce.

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