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Workers (Definition and Rights)

Volume 629: debated on Wednesday 18 October 2017

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the definition of worker; to make provision about workers’ rights; and for connected purposes.

My last ten-minute rule motion, on free telephone calls to Department for Work and Pensions helplines, has today been made Government policy, so it is appropriate that I ask leave to bring in a Bill to define the status of workers in law; to refine the current definitions in light of recent Supreme Court judgments; and to provide greater protection from day one of a person’s employment, eliminating zero-hours contracts and providing greater protection for those in precarious work, such as in the hospitality sector.

For too many years, workers’ rights were rarely debated outside of trade union conferences, but since the 2008 crash, when the failures of big business landed the least well off taxpayers with the bill for the corporate gamblers and their reckless handling of the global economy, there has been a growing sense of outrage that hard work is not properly rewarded.

Far from addressing an unbalanced economy that rewards failure so long as it is on a global scale, the Government have clung to the supremacy of the market over workers’ rights. However, all the evidence shows that a healthy economy values workers and that achieving the correct balance between profit and reward is the biggest spur to long-term growth instead of short-term profit.

Many voices are now challenging the sheer scale of exploitation and poor working practices that all age groups experience but that often hit young people the hardest. I commend the private Member’s Bill tabled by my comrade, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald). The Unpaid Trial Work Periods (Prohibition) Bill would make it clear that, if a trial period is offered, the employer must pay up for that period whether or not a full offer of employment is made.

In many ways, there is a false narrative about the modern world of work that suggests that 21st-century technology has created a different dynamic and that workers have to adapt to be more flexible and more open to different ways of working, leaving behind outdated notions of security and guaranteed reward. The clear implication is that full-time secure employment with rights, a pension and clearly defined hours is an outdated 20th-century concept, instead of the peak of a hard-fought struggle to redress the balance between employer and employee—or, at its most extreme, exploiter and exploited. I make no apology for putting the issue in stark terms. We need to stand up and take on the siren voices that want to cloud a simple issue that has existed for as long as one person has agreed to pay another for their work. If fairness is not nailed down in legislation and enforced, there will always be employers who push their advantage to the limit and beyond.

I strongly believe the time has come for a full debate about what is fair work and how it should be properly rewarded. My Bill would bring some clarity to the definition of “worker” by defining what rights are available and consolidating a single statutory definition of the people to whom employment rights and duties apply. It would also give the House the opportunity for more debate about the issues currently being explored by Committees following the Taylor report.

The Taylor report is useful in one sense: workers’ rights are front and centre. With Brexit on the horizon, we should all be aware of how easily the rights we take for granted could disappear. The report correctly identifies that clarity in the law could be improved, but I take issue with the proposed solutions, particularly that of creating a new category of worker—“dependent contractor.” I have a strong sense that the Taylor report’s main focus is not primarily the worker. It gives more weight to the interests of consumers and employers; when Mr Taylor gave evidence in Committee his responses indicated an anxiety that nothing should be introduced that “harmed” or “affected” consumers and employers in a negative way, even if it improves workers’ rights.

Mr Taylor admitted that his report was influenced by the Treasury submission on costs. He also admitted that if he had known that the Supreme Court was going to rule against the Government on employment tribunal fee costs, he would have been more robust in his report on the case for abolishing those costs. That was quite a revelation about how the report was produced—“nothing too radical” was evidently the starting point. There was quite a contradiction when he said that good businesses should not fail because other businesses are prepared to run a more profit-driven, exploitative model, but the report proposes no concrete legislative changes or enforcement to support companies that undertake good practice.

One of the more puzzling aspects of the report and Mr Taylor’s evidence was the stress on the importance of empowering workers through access to information and advice without once acknowledging the role of trade unions. In many respects, the choice of employers is given priority throughout. It is odd that the United Nations International Labour Organisation standards and the four pillars of decent work—employment creation, social protection, rights at work and social dialogue—are not referenced.

The research methodology, the time frame and the resources available to produce the report all point to this being a bit of a fig leaf to hide the Government’s true stance and intentions towards workers and their rights, which are more accurately reflected in the debates on the passage of the Trade Union Act 2016—the Taylor report does not call for the repeal of that Act. The two Supreme Court rulings this year in favour of Unison on tribunal fees and the right to consultation also support the need for reform of the law.

The UK has not yet consolidated a single statutory definition of the people to whom employment rights and duties apply. Through the Supreme Court there is already an emerging body of case law to support workers’ rights, in particular the landmark 2011 judgment in Autoclenz Ltd v. Belcher, which makes it clear that just because signed contract documentation makes it look as if a person is self-employed, that is by no means the end of the story. Employment tribunals must take into account the inequality of bargaining power between employer and employee, and they must look at the whole context to ensure the written contract document genuinely reflects what the parties intended the employment relationship to be.

The time has come to secure legislation that uses the court judgments to clarify the nature and status of workers today. We should not overcomplicate the issue by pretending that the age-old struggle between labour and capital has magically vanished in the digital age. The Conservative party is not, and never will be, the party of the workers, despite the good intent adhered to or advocated by one or two well-meaning Members. During the passage of the Trade Union Act, in which I participated, the true intent and nature of Government policy was revealed and written into Hansard for all to see. I wonder whether the crackdown on workers’ rights goes far enough for some Members, who look fondly on 18th and 19th-century employment legislation—namely, the Master and Servant Acts designed to discipline employees and repress the combination of workers in trade unions—and whether they would happily vote for their reintroduction. However, I believe that is a minority viewpoint.

The time has come for an Act of Parliament to address the issue of precarious work, and I commend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Chris Stephens, Neil Gray, Mhairi Black, Grahame Morris, Ruth George, Deidre Brock, Tommy Sheppard, Albert Owen, Kirsty Blackman, Jonathan Edwards, Kelvin Hopkins and Mr Alistair Carmichael present the Bill.

Chris Stephens accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 19 January 2018, and to be printed (Bill 114).