State of dependence

On the back of the Taylor review which proposes categorising workers outside the mainstream of full-time unemployment as ‘dependent contractor’, Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ (ICTU) John O’Farrell outlines union moves to accommodate and protect these workers.

Any old-school tailor would tell you: “Never mind the pattern, feel the width.” So it is with the slippery language of neo-liberalism and its enforcers. We all ought to know by now that when we hear the word ‘reform’ we should hold onto our wallets; welfare ‘reform’, tax ‘reform’, regulatory ‘reform’, and ‘reform’ in the delivery of public services has always, and without exception, resulted in the rich getting richer and the less rich getting, if not less cash, then a feeling that they have lost a bit more control each time.

The services after reform invariably feel more remote and less accountable. Reasonable queries are met with official stonewalling citing ‘commercial confidentiality’. Managers who were once accountable at council meetings are now only answerable to shareholders at AGMs dominated by invisible institutional giants from the City of London. What is dressed up as ‘simplification’ of taxes and benefits ends up in baffled claimants getting sanctioned and resorting to food banks, while the wealthiest create ruses so complicated that regulators and HMRC cannot control the billions syphoned offshore each year.

This is then followed up by some official hand-wringing about the inability of states to control such multi-national behemoths, and therefore we have no choice but to lower our expectations for our citizens another notch. The most recent policy wheeze to be ‘mugged by reality’ is employment standards.

When she took office in 2016, Theresa May was the workers’ friend, those hard-taskin’ Citizens of Somewhere who were going to be finally listened to after the Brexit vote trounced those rootless cosmopolitans, the Liberal Elite. So she hired a former Blair advisor to review modern and emerging employment practices and the Taylor review coughed up last month.

It makes some of the right noises but recommends little that will reduce the stress or precariousness of a packer in an Amazon warehouse or a Deliveroo cyclist. It proposes a few improvements on agencies and zero-hour contracts, but these largely amount to a right to request better treatment rather than legislation. Matthew Taylor recognised the problem connecting “low-quality work and weak management” to “our productivity challenge”, but failed to get the connection between robust and fair legislation and the presence of trade unions to ensure that those rules are obeyed by those bad bosses who try to tilt the board in their favour.

Taylor proposes a new status for Uber and Deliveroo workers: ‘dependent contractor’. What a demeaning and degrading term. Is that a worthy aspiration to dangle in front of a school child? It is at least honest about the status forced upon an increasing amount of workers with each ‘reform’. It says that this shrinking pie is as good as it gets. Complaining will get you nowhere. Combining with your colleagues will be criminalised. If you cannot walk away, by striking or quitting, you are not independent.

This mentality is being challenged. In the US, 350,000 white-collar ‘independent contractors’ have joined the Freelancers Union, and UK/Irish unions with a history of representing free agents (such as my own, the NUJ) are pushing other unions to develop and ‘reform’ their structures to accommodate workers outside the mainstream of full-time employment in one place for a long time.

The starting point for employers, unions and policy makers ought to be an acceptance of what the ILO calls decent work. This means tackling the main areas of work insecurity: employment status; wages; hours; training; safety; social security such as health cover and pensions and fair representation.

In practical terms this means workplaces where the following can be assumed:

• payment of a living wage;
• fair hours of work;
• right to union representation;
• respect and decency at work; and
• fair public procurement.

That is what a 21st century workplace ought to feel like, be it in an office, a warehouse, a farm or a dining-table at home. Never mind the job title, feel the decency.

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