Just weeks after a landmark judgement that recognised Uber drivers as having the same rights as employees, entitling them to the minimum wage and paid holiday, the Pensions Secretary Damian Green made it clear on Wednesday that he has a very different idea of what the future of work looks like.
At a speech to right-wing think tank Reform, Green suggested the jobs of the future may not have a fixed monthly salary or fixed hours, paid holidays, sick pay, pensions, or even a contract. Most of us would see a bonfire of hard-won rights as a bad thing – but not Damian.
Calling the changes ‘exciting’, he painted a utopian picture of a world in which we will all be our own bosses, able to pick where and when we work, and to pick and mix who we work for. No need to be held back by quaint niceties like employment rights. There’s an ‘everyday entrepreneur’ inside all of us he claimed, and, it would seem, he believes Uber and Deliveroo have arrived to set it free.
Just as Thatcher promised us a ‘shareholder democracy’ as she flogged off the nation’s assets, a new generation of Tories have seen the future, and expect the rest of us to get on board or be left behind.
But those with first-hand experience of unwanted self-employment know not to be bamboozled by the buzzwords. The reality isn’t quite so rosy.
To most of us, Damian’s ‘everyday entrepreneurs’ look a lot like employees. Uber drivers are required to meet detailed standards of presentation and their performance is closely managed. Other self-employed workers are required to turn up and work fixed hours, or to wear a uniform. Many are even saddled with exclusivity clauses that tie them to working only with a single employer, making a farce of the idea that they could ‘pick and mix’ or shop around for better pay or conditions.
There’s plenty of ‘freedom’ and ‘flexibility’ in the gig economy – for bosses.
150 years ago, the Uber driver’s set-up would have been recognisable to thousands of self-employed garment workers and launderers who worked from their homes, often in appalling conditions with all the restrictions and expectations of employment, yet none of the rights. It went by a different name then: piece work. Through a combination of political and consumer pressure, and by standing together and channelling their collective strength through co-operatives and trade unions, they fought and won for the employment rights we now take for granted.
So as much as Damian Green would like us to see such a future as inevitable, it isn’t. It’s a choice.
Across the World, more and more people are proving that another path is possible – that flexibility and convenience for consumers don’t have to mean low pay and non-existent rights for workers.
In Austin, Texas, self-employed taxi drivers fought back against rising fees and increasingly restrictive practices of traditional taxi firms and ridesharing apps like Uber by setting up and running their own co-operative – ATX Co-op Taxis. After less than two years, the firm already has almost 500 member-owners, setting their own terms and conditions, offering lower fares to passengers, and reinvesting profits in communities ignored by the big commercial firms.
Closer to home, when local authority cuts in Swindon forced the shutdown of the local authorities’ school music teaching service, the music teachers who suddenly found themselves self-employed chose to stand together. Rather be divided and see their wages and working conditions forced down by private middlemen, they too formed a co-operative to pool their risks, market their services and share overheads.
Whether taxi drivers in Austin, music teachers in Swindon or – as covered previously – employee-owned care firms, the co-operative movement is stepping up with a very different vision for the future from that described by Damian Green. As we undergo unprecedented changes in how we live, work and consume, change is inevitable, but a race to the bottom isn’t – another path just takes political will.