Making innovation work for workers

Acting as though globalisation, technological advancement and employment flexibility can be prevented will harm workers’ rights in the long run, writes Lauren Crowley on the back of the Matthew Taylor report

Whether it is the rapid growth in self-employment, the growth of the ‘gig economy’, or the rise of automation – the world of work is changing.

Five million people in Britain are now self-employed, new technology has facilitated the growth of the ‘gig economy’, fundamentally changing the nature of work, and automation is becoming realised for many businesses. The size of the self-employed workforce is soon to overtake that of the public sector.

The report by Matthew Taylor, released today, was not short of challenges to address. Initial reviews are mixed but he appears to have straddled a tricky line between flexibility and security; equally upsetting trade unions and business in characteristic centrist style.

The review highlighted a number of points my trade union Community had made to Taylor, including greater support for the self-employed, encouraging innovative organising and the concept of portable benefits for individuals who work for many employers or gig economy businesses.

The report rightly acknowledges the need for enhanced rights and protections for the self-employed and that taxation should be revisited as part of a holistic solution to create a fairer working world for all. The government has said twice this week that they won’t revisit the issue of national insurance contributions for the self-employed. This poses the question of whether they will deliver on enhanced rights as previously promised and if so, how far they will go, given that self-employed workers will continue to contribute less to the state through tax than others.

The government must consult self-employed workers and trade unions on how best to deliver better support and protections. Community would be happy to help.

Our union has a proud history of innovation – together with the co-working cooperative Indycube, we are bringing a voice to the self-employed and providing protections they otherwise could not access. People who join ‘Indycube Community’ will never have to chase an unpaid invoice again and have direct access to free legal and contractual advice.

Taking it further, we are working with the Involvement and Participation Association on a pioneering project to bring collectivism and give a voice to self-employed people that we hope to reveal more about later in the year.

We have recognised that as Community’s membership from these new sectors continues to grow; our approach must change with it.

The evolving challenges around employment facing governments across the world are vast and ever changing. How do we ensure that all work is secure, fair and decent? How do trade unions stay relevant in a world where one worker has a multitude of employers, no collective agreements and no shop floor? How do we ensure that workers are skilled and resourced enough to survive automation, that children are educated properly to anticipate it?

To instinctively greet innovation with suspicion is regressive.

Globalisation, technological advancement and employment flexibility are all here to stay. To discount that will harm workers’ rights in the long run.

Demonstrating an outright unwillingness to find a way to keep that flexibility, while enhancing workers’ rights, harms not helps those workers.

We have to find a way to make innovation work for workers. Those concerned must find a way to provide fairer working conditions that maintain the principle that self-employed workers are free to work as they please. Good work is the route to prosperity. It is the answer to inequality and the driver of progress.

Our country’s greatest achievements have been won by those who come together, with a common purpose, delivering change for all and this is never truer than when said for the trade union movement.

We owe it to our predecessors, who fought for progress, and to the next generation who will fight to overcome a more precarious world of work, to strive to get the best deal for workers – delivering greater employment rights while maintaining the freedom of flexibility.

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Lauren Crowley is policy lead at Community and associate fellow at the Changing Work Centre. She tweets at @Lauren_Crowley

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