Kenny MacAskill: no easy answers gig economy problems

Armed troops and a tank at the Trongate in Glasgow following the George Square riot in 1919, sparked by a strike calling for a 40-hour working week. Many today would gladly welcome a 40-hour week if they could earn a living wage on it
Armed troops and a tank at the Trongate in Glasgow following the George Square riot in 1919, sparked by a strike calling for a 40-hour working week. Many today would gladly welcome a 40-hour week if they could earn a living wage on it
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Employment has been much in the news with publication of Matthew Taylor’s Review of Employment Practices and recent calls by Scottish Labour for a maximum 48-hour week. Where we work and how we work has changed over years. Gone are huge single-site employers that once proliferated across Scotland. Pits, steel and shipyards have closed. But, even in the USA the largest single site employer isn’t Ford or Boeing, but Disney World.

But, they were far from “Good Old Days” with dreadful working conditions and both injury and disease proliferating. The loss of the dignity of work is rightly lamented but what it often entailed most certainly isn’t. However, other aspects remain constants in the conflict between employers and the employed.

The work done has not just changed but terms and conditions of employment have altered. The Gig Economy referred to by the Taylor Review has arisen over recent years. It’s welcomed by some, but the source of misery for others. Whether a new category of employment in “dependent contractor” can address that seems questionable and the scepticism of the TUC is understandable. It seems far from a blueprint for action.

Whilst the type of work being done has changed with delivery drivers and bicycle couriers now part of the so called “new economy”, some of the abuse is far from original. Now it may be the failure to be contacted by the app regulating the call for a gig. Then it was the failure of the foreman to give a nod for the dock job or a shout for work at a building site. Technology may have changed but the abuse and exploitation remains. Flexibility in the economy far to often is a euphemism for the abrogation of an employer’s responsibility and erosion of a workers’ rights.

Zero Hours contracts were also addressed by Taylor’s report. To be fair they’re welcomed by many employers and liked by many employees. Indeed, many sectors are highly dependent on them. Private security and the hospitality trade both use it significantly. Students, retired people and a few others can welcome the opportunity for some extra money when it arises, without the need to be full time or even part-time on the payroll.

However, it can also be the basis of horrendous exploitation as some shaming TV exposures have disclosed. Workers requiring to wait for a call that never comes or when it does proves to be for insufficient hours to provide a living wage. It’s no wonder foodbank use is most prevalent amongst the working poor, along with those who have been sanctioned from benefits. Taylor’s correct, though, that it’s not zero-hour contracts as such which are the issue but their abuse. However, unless that can be addressed then action’s required. The option of being able to seek a formal contract after a while is a far from adequate solution to those suffering in the here and now.

Scottish Labour’s call for a maximum 48-hour working week is something I’m sympathetic to. It would, though, have had more validity had they supported powers over employment law being devolved to the Scottish Parliament. As they remain reserved to Westminster, Scottish workers are dependent on actions from a Tory Government, and DUP concessions didn’t include them. Why Scotland should have a distinctive legal system but exclude employment law only they can answer but the consequences will be faced by Scottish workers. Theresa May has already indicated a reluctance to legislate on Taylor’s Review, and calls upon the Scottish Government to act are shameless political posturing.

As with zero-hours contracts there are jobs where long hours are needed and are accepted by the worker. However, as with shift work constant long hours can be harmful to the individual and damaging to family life. It’s the nature of the work and the extent of it that’s the main issue. The problem isn’t the number of hours themselves but that many need to work that long simply to earn a living age.

Again it’s nothing new. Its almost a century since tanks were on the streets of Glasgow following the George Square riot in 1919. Whilst some of that can be put down to the Russian Revolution having taken place just over a year before, it should be remembered that the strike was for a 40-hour week. Before then men had been working 54 hours in the factories, whilst the hours for women in shops and restaurants were even longer. Many now would gladly welcome a 40-hour week, if they could only earn a wage they could live on in it.

So, as society changes so does work. However, the perennial battle between capital and labour remains. Hidden by changes in roles performed and attempts made to mask it, such as describing workers as self-employed when they’re clearly employees. The best defence for workers remains a vibrant economy and strong trade unions. Neither sadly apply now. Legislation and regulation are therefore essential. There are employers who don’t require it but there are others who without it will never provide. That’s why it’s needed.

It’s hugely complex, regulate too much as with zero hours and the gig economy and you may cost jobs. The minimum and living wage are the same, its about calibration. There are many small employers where margins are tight and wages a significant factor. But, that shouldn’t necessitate the exploitation of staff. A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, and a wage you can live on should be a right.

But, it’s also about a cultural change in our society, as well as laws. If we constantly expect the lowest possible price then it comes at a cost paid by someone else, whether the Deliveroo biker or low-paid bar staff. Surely, it’s a small price for a better society, to pay a bit more in fare or in the cost of a pint. Laws need brought in and enforced but attitudes also need changed.