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Gig economy: there’s an easy way to end abusive working conditions

Tales of abusive working practices in the self-employed “gig” economy are no less shocking for being familiar. Try this testimony from a driver at Parcelforce, as related in the latest excellent report by Frank Field MP and Andrew Forsey: “I have been fined over £400 for being too sick to get to work for just one day and once had to pay for a company employee’s overtime to come out on [the] route with me whilst I sat next to him with a bucket in case I was sick.”

Field and Forsey’s first report last year prompted the prime minister to appoint Matthew Taylor to review employment practices in the “gig” economy; the findings and recommendations are due to be published next week. The second, into Uber, encouraged Transport for London to grant the Californian taxi firm only a short-term licence while it consults on a new regulatory system.

This third report – based largely on evidence from workers at Parcelforce, Dynamic Parcel Force (DPD) and British Car Auctions – deserves to make a similar splash. It should persuade even die-hard enthusiasts for the “gig” economy that, too often, the label “self-employed” is a grand pretence.

Companies free themselves of the obligation to pay employers’ national insurance, pension contributions, and holiday and sick pay. In return, they can grant their workers virtually no freedoms or benefits. The job can still be performed by workers who are told when, where and how to do the work, on pain of disciplinary action. It is not self-employment as the term is generally understood.

There will, of course, be examples of “self-employed” workers who gain from the arrangement in the form of higher earnings – it would silly to pretend otherwise. But, as this report shows, the result can be lower wages, job insecurity and workers being forced to bear hidden costs and risks.

What should be done? Field and Forsey have two big ideas. The first is to introduce a “national minimum standard of fair work” in the gig economy. That needs refinement and definition. But the second proposal is pleasingly simple: reverse the legal burden of proof and make companies demonstrate that their workforces are genuinely self-employed.

That single measure – if enforced – could make a meaningful difference quite quickly. The current law is clearly failing to prevent companies dressing up the same job in different clothes and calling it “self-employment.” Forcing companies to offer a justification up-front would be a common sense response. The Taylor Report, let’s hope, will come to a similar conclusion.

If so, one suspects Taylor would be cheered by the majority of companies who accept the normal duties and responsibilities that come with employing people. They, too, are sick of being undercut by rivals who twist the definition of “self-employment” to make it mean something that was never intended.

Burberry’s top discounts

Here’s another grumble for Burberry’s revolting shareholders to air at next week’s annual meeting: how on Earth does the fashion house justify discounts of 80% for senior management when they buy the company’s fashions? A modest discount, say 20%, would be par for the course. But 80%? That’s almost giving the stuff away.

Incoming chief executive Marco Gobbetti will be the next recipient of this generosity. Given how much Gobbetti is being paid – up to £7.3m-a-year, including an £80,000 allowance for clothing, a car and travel – you’d hope he’d be loyal to the brand naturally when he needs a new mac.

Even the non-executive directors are entitled to the 80% discount because they are deemed to be “brand ambassadors”. The title seems to be easier to gain than lose. Carol Fairweather, the former finance director, left in January but will enjoy her discount until the end of March next year, says the remuneration report, “or later, if the committee so determines”.

The perk for the bosses (other staff get smaller discounts, obviously) won’t put a serious dent in profits, of course. And next week’s expected rows over pay will cover conventional territory, such as share awards. But it all adds to the impression that the sense of entitlement among Burberry’s well-dressed directors runs deep.