Did Uber Just Catch A Major UK Break?

So, it looks like Uber and Deliveroo, and anyone else in the gig economy can breathe a sigh of relief. There are to be no draconian recommendations laid before the Prime Minister by the Matthew Taylor report. Instead, we have recommendations of "fair work," which seems to be the catchphrase of the day.

There had been a hope among workers and unions that the report might end the practice of some employers relying on people being flexible enough to turn up in the hope of work but not offering anything back for the one-sided show of loyalty. The physical embodiment of this are queues of people outside warehouses hoping for a day's work while the part you don't see is a gig worker relying on work coming through an app, such as Uber or Deliveroo.

What we have instead is talk of a "dependent contractor" type of employment which has been linked with receiving holiday and sick pay as well as earning at least minimum wage. My prediction is sick pay might become a part of the mix, as a very long shot, but holiday pay will be kicked in to the long grass. Instead, what we will most definitely get is a commitment to the minimum wage.

As ever, the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 had the best steer here with an interview with Matthew Taylor shortly before he formally published his report. The thrust of the interview was that worker rights would come down to being informed how they can at least earn minimum wage. In other words, it's not enough for an employer to shrug and say you turned up at the wrong time of day too many times to earn minimum wage. Instead, Taylor outlined, there would need to be a tech angle here through which a "dependent contractor" is shown how they could've earned minimum wage. Reading, or listening, between the lines, this appeared to be calling for an app that outlines to people when demand for their services would be greatest and they would be able to earn the minimum wage by showing up, or logging in, for work.

The big take out for me is that if these recommendations are acted on, after a review of the report this summer, the Government could ironically end up protecting not just gig economy workers but also the tech companies who provide the irregular work.

How so? Well, an Uber driver is in the process of taking the app provider to court claiming he was employed and so entitled to holiday and sick pay. The courts have so far had a track record of ruling for the worker and against the company that turns out to be their employer, and not a firm which allows them to be self-employed.

By placing a new type of legal working status between employed and self-employed, the dependent contractor term could provide a half way house where the leap is far less severe. At the moment, the likes of Uber and Deliveroo have the most to lose from a court declaring a worker was legally employed and so due rights, additional payment and, presumably, national insurance contributions to be made by the employer?

Dependent contractors look, to me, like a stepping stone that will allow Uber and Deliveroo, plus any other gig economy company, to keep on ducking national insurance contributions so long as they show contractors how they can earn at least minimum wage. Sick pay and holiday pay? I'm not so sure this will apply. It would be so complicated to work out based on irregular hours. We'll have to wait and see.

The elephant in the proverbial room is the UK has a Conservative government (propped up by the DUP) and has no interest of kicking the hornet's nest that has helped the country consistently post the best employment figures for many years. The pragmatic view is that the UK will need a flexible work force after Brexit and so new regulation is extremely unlikely. Theresa May made a point today of saying there would certainly be "no overbearing legislation."

Uber drivers and Deliveroo cyclists can expect a new feature on their app which, rather like a fitness tracker, will mark how near they are to earning minimum wage and when they should be logging in to work to make sure they do. As far as I can tell, and predict, that will be the main change. The Government daren't risk record low levels of unemployment by forcing gig economy job providers to pay holiday and sick pay. Nice idea, in principle. But it is unlikely to happen under the current government.

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