Lifting the lid on bogus self employment

01 January 2018

(as featured in the ASLEF Journal in January 2018, by Gregor Gall, Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Bradford)

Companies such as Uber, Amazon and Deliveroo have been condemned for using artificial self-employment to deprive their workers of their rights, evade their corporate responsibilities, and cheat the Revenue.

If there is one clear way to get your head around what ‘neo-liberalism’ means, it’s the current plague of bogus self-employment. Neo-liberalism is the hard-right ideology that believes ‘the market knows best’ and, consequently, should be left to determine, well, pretty much everything. A capitalist Wild West which, when applied to employment, means ending longstanding, and hard-fought for, employment protections and term and conditions.

Governments since 1979 have either, at worst, advanced the neo-liberal agenda or, at best, done nothing to stop it in its tracks. And, in the last five years especially, many employers don’t downgrade staff and roll back their t&s, they go one better and make them artificially self-employed.bogus 1

You get to keep control over your workers – what they do and when and how they do it – by having a commercial contract with them. But you don’t have to pay them the minimum wage, pay them sick pay, offer paid holidays, make contributions to their pensions or pay your share towards their tax and national insurance. In other words, all the things that, in a civilised world, good employers should do. This is what Uber, Deliveroo, Amazon and all the others worked out – as have construction companies using so-called ‘umbrella firms’.

Unions such as the GMB and the Independent Workers’ Union have shown, in court, that these workers are not genuinely self-employed as they have no meaningful freedom over what they do and when they do it. But the rub is that these victories apply only to those taking the case to court. And as necessity is the mother of invention, some companies have devised new ways of getting around these legal victories in order to protect their profits. Deliveroo has altered its de facto employment contracts; by allowing its workers the right to substitute someone else to do their work, in law these workers are now deemed to be self-employed. CitySprint has issued new contracts claiming they are merely commercial contracts. Other companies are expected to follow their lead.

This shows that while some limited advances can be made in the courts, under existing laws, it isn’t easy to protect workers from bogus self-employment. If we want to make long-term, and deep-seated, change that protects workers and institutes basic rights for all, then a change in basic legislation is needed.

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