Are zero-hours contracts and a flexible economy our PM’s legacy?

One month on from her disastrous snap election, Theresa May must be heartily sick of everyone lining up to tell her where she went wrong. 

Pundits, opponents, even her own backbenchers and Cabinet colleagues have been openly scorning the Prime Minister’s strategy and performance. Much of this is deserved; it is unforgivable that a leader who once enjoyed sky-high approval ratings and commanding poll leads could take the country to the brink of a Jeremy Corbyn led regime.

But with the dust more or less settled, it is worth noting something Mrs May got right, and that is the matter of workers’ rights in a changing economy. It is an issue on which the Tories could still connect with millions of voters who might otherwise be drawn to Labour.

This week will see the publication of a report commissioned by Mrs May into business and employment practices. Good Work is authored by Matthew Taylor, former policy chief under Tony Blair, and will advise ministers on how to respond to ongoing changes in the labour market. Top of the priorities list is the rapidly growing gig economy, which sees stable jobs replaced by a series of short-term contracts for work that can cross sectors, skill sets, and geography. ‘Gigging’ is for those who want a more flexible working life, combining some of the freedoms of self-employment with the diversity of experiences that comes from cramming multiple careers into a short period of time.

This model also cuts out the middle man, with temp agencies rendered obsolete by the ease with which you can sign up for one ‘gig’ or another. So a worker can spend six months driving with Uber, a mobile phone app that lets you turn your car into a private hire taxi, then a few weeks as a courier for Deliveroo, the online fast food service, all the while making money by teaching through Udemy, a website that allows you to transform your skills into paying courses for beginners in everything from IT repair to karate. For those who don’t relish the thought of 40 years stuck behind a desk in an office, the gig economy allows you to make a living while enjoying life.

It’s proving popular, with 1.1 million Britons now earning their crust by ‘gigging’ — almost as many as work for the NHS — and we can expect this number to grow. In part this is because the flexibility is appealing but also because the nature of work is changing at breakneck pace. There are fewer opportunities to be stuck behind that office desk for four decades; jobs simply don’t last that long anymore. Globalisation sees companies set up where labour is cheapest while professions once thought untouchable are now at risk from automation. A report released in March by PwC estimated that up to 30% of existing jobs in the UK could be replaced by artificial intelligence in the next 20 years. The job of a lifetime no longer lasts for life.

Advocates of the gig economy wax lyrical about its versatility and the latitude it affords but the risks are obvious. Zero-hours contracts are unreliable if you are looking for steady work and being a gig worker currently entitles you to none of the protections afforded to staffers — no holiday pay, no sick leave entitlement, no pension contributions. While some enterprises undoubtedly look after their contractors, others are using the system to avoid paying the national minimum wage. Another report into this employment model, released last week by Labour MP Frank Field, found that some firms are paying non-staff workers just £2.22 an hour — and even demanding they sign contracts pledging not to challenge pay and conditions.

The Taylor Report is expected to address these problems by recommending enhanced protections, including enforcement of the minimum wage and pressing bosses to provide more clarity about hours, pay rates, and compensation for last-minute shift cancellations. According to the Times, the review will say: ‘We believe that too many employers and businesses are relying on zero-hours, short-hours or agency contracts when they could be much more forward-thinking in their scheduling.’

If Mr Taylor’s report strikes the right balance between innovation and fairness in the workplace, Mrs May’s government should press ahead with its implementation. The gig economy presents us with fresh opportunities to create jobs and prosperity but the public must have confidence that the system isn’t being rigged against the little guy. You need not be a fist-clenching socialist to be suspicious of big business and its ruthlessness in pursuit of profit. Trade unions, which saw their membership rolls plummet to an all-time low of 6.2 million last year, should find new impetus in signing up gig workers and offering practical support to meet their needs.

Mobility will have to become our watchword. Moving between jobs must be made easier. The process of buying and selling a house is still too cumbersome while renters are shackled to rigid long-term leases. Those who manage to move will find much of their time spent setting up council tax direct debits and securing what is fast becoming the modern Holy Grail — a GP within five miles of your home.

We live in times of great turbulence and sometimes it can feel like we are no longer in control of our lives. But the gig economy need not be scary. If we think big and act deftly, we can make it work for workers and the country’s pocketbook alike. It is vital that unscrupulous employers are brought to book but just as important not to let over-regulation smother the lightness of foot that the gigging model thrives on. Government’s role should be that of referee, not manager.

Some critics say Mrs May is on her own zero-hours contract and it is only a matter of time before her colleagues replace her. But if she can help shape the new economy to be fairer and more flexible, her gig as Prime Minister might have been worth it after all.

*****

London mayor Sadiq Khan is urging the government to fully ban Hezbollah in the UK. It comes after repellent scenes of anti-Israel marchers in London waving the flag of the Islamist terror group, which is committed to destroying the State of Israel and murdering Jews.

Mr Khan is writing to Home Secretary Amber Rudd demanding a crackdown on the extremists, saying: ‘I share the concerns of the Jewish community about support shown for Hezbollah, which is an illegal, proscribed and anti-Semitic organisation. Anti-Semitism or hate crime of any kind has no place in our city, where we don’t just tolerate diversity, we respect and celebrate it.’

Mr Khan speaks for so many British Muslims in denouncing terrorism and those who urge members of the Islamic faith to condemn fundamentalism should give the mayor credit for his tough stance. Someone else who ought to pay attention is Jeremy Corbyn. This, Jeremy, is how a proper Labour politician deals with fanatics and fascists — by banning, not befriending, them.

*****

Former Rangers owner Sir David Murray was one of a dozen businesspeople invited to dinner with Nicola Sturgeon at Bute House before the General Election. A messianic figure breaking bread with 12 counsellors before disaster struck? Sounds awfully familiar. Alas, as the election result showed, the First Minister is now merely treading water, not walking on it.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Have your say on the issues raised here by emailing scotletters@dailymail.co.uk, remembering to reference the column. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk

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