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Workers' rights in the UK - what to look out for

Workers' rights and employment statuses have been under intense scrutiny in recent times.

In the run up to the snap General Election, both the Conservative Party and Labour Party manifestos pledged to reform workers' rights in the UK. Prime Minister Theresa May promised "the greatest expansion of workers' rights in history" and in the Queen's Speech she reinforced the government's commitment to enhancing and protecting workers' rights in the modern workplace.

With the hotly anticipated Matthew Taylor Review of Employment Practices due to report on its recommendations in June, it is worth considering how workers' rights may be reformed to meet the needs of a modern workforce and new business practices.  

Brexit may also have consequences for workers' rights in the UK. While Theresa May has promised to protect workers' rights derived from the European Union while she remains Prime Minister, there are no such safeguards from future governments. Currently a number of workers' rights are protected in the UK by European Union law. These include:

  • limits on working hours each week;
  • entitlement to paid annual leave for both employees and workers;
  • equal pay;
  • maternity and parental rights; and
  • anti-discrimination laws.

As outlined in our previous article there have been a number of high profile cases deliberating on employment statuses in the UK, including cases involving Uber and CitySprint. These cases demonstrate that the law of employment status is a complex area and not easily understood by businesses that are or could be affected.

Taylor Report

The Taylor Report on Employment Practices in the Modern Economy was commissioned by the Conservative government in October 2016. The purpose of this report is to consider some of the key issues raised by the emergence of the gig economy, and the resulting uncertainty over employment status.

The report has six key themes:

  1. Security, pay and rights – considering new emerging business practices and how this impacts on workers' rights.
  2. Progression and training.
  3. Balance of rights and responsibilities – considering whether employment status requires reform due to the emergence of new business practices.
  4. Employee representation – whether there are better forms of representation on company boards.
  5. Opportunities for under-represented groups.
  6. New business models – considering how the government can support a diverse ecology of business models.

It is anticipated that the Taylor Report will be published sometime in June 2017. With the snap election and the subsequent uncertainties, it is unclear whether this timetable will be adhered to.

There are indications from Matthew Taylor (who is leading the review) that recommendations may include:

  • A premium hourly rate above the minimum wage for those workers required to be on standby for work that may not materialise under zero hour contracts.
  • The "right to request" fixed hours. This would operate under a similar statutory framework as the right to request flexible working, but would instead enable those on zero hour contracts to request fixed hours. The Confederation of British Industry has expressed its support for this reform.

Law Society Recommendations

The Law Society has also provided its own recommendations for transforming working practices in the modern workplace. These include:

  • Reforming how employment status is defined. The Law Society report suggests providing clearer definitions of the different employment statuses (employee, worker and self-employed).
  • All individuals should receive a written statement clarifying their employment status and who their employer is.
  • A comprehensive review of employment legislation to ensure that UK laws reflect the reality of work.
  • Improving compliance with employment law by empowering the Labour Market Enforcement and Gangmasters Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) to investigate whether organisations and groups of organisations within sectors have correctly attributed employment status and clarify what rights and responsibilities exist.
  • Encouraging businesses to be transparent about their employment practices to help create fair competition.

Comment

It's clear that workers' rights and employment status are presently key issues within the UK. With the Taylor Report expected any day now, it is likely to remain at the forefront of British politics for the foreseeable future. The report will contain recommendations only, and so it will be for the Conservative government to determine which recommendations will be taken forward and implemented.

With Brexit negotiations at the early stages, the timetable for reforming workers' rights and employment status is unknown. The likelihood is that public consultation will follow the publication of the Taylor Report, and so progress is likely to be slow.

However, it is anticipated that there will be more developments in case law as more cases wind their way through the tribunal system. Uber has appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal and so there may also be developments to follow from this case.

TLT will keep you up to date with further insights on workers' rights and the gig economy as developments unfold, and it will be one of our hot topics at our series of Annual Employment Update Events in autumn 2017. 

This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at June 2017. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases. For more information see our terms & conditions.

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