Tackling insecure work: Awareness and enforcement key


Better awareness and enforcement of existing employment rights is not the solution at all - the solution is more and better employment rights. IE the rights that exist currently are weak and ...

Denis Lenihan, Read More
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Employment rights law may always be complex, but it must be made easier to understand, according to an expert panel

Better awareness and enforcement of existing employment rights could be the most important step in tackling insecure working, a panel agreed at a recent Citizens Advice event.

“I think a lot of the problem is not necessarily to do with rights but awareness and transparency and people not exercising them and being aware of them,” said Matthew Taylor, RSA chief executive and lead on a government-commissioned independent review of modern employment practices. He pointed to Citizens Advice research, presented at the event, that half of those on zero-hours contracts and two-fifths on temporary contracts wrongly believe they’re not entitled to holiday pay.

“I think the worker status is a useful status,” he said regarding current definitions, adding later though that “if the law can’t be understood by ordinary people then it’s failing".

“I don’t know what goes on under the bonnet of my car, but what matters is that I understand the dashboard,” he said. “The law will always be complex under the bonnet, but it’s about whether people understand what the indicators mean, and I think we can do better on that.”

CBI director for people and skills Neil Carberry pointed out that there is already much regulation around treatment of agency staff. “The law is quite clear that for example if you have performance-related bonuses, you have to have a system for agency workers. So it comes back to the point around awareness and enforcement.”

He added: “ I think the law’s relatively clear. The challenge is people understanding where they stand.”

Taylor pointed out that there needed to be greater alignment between worker status tests and HMRC tax tests. “HMRC changes rules all the time but employment law has been static. We’ve relied on the courts to do the work that law makers should do,” he said, referring to the fact that employment status is subject to case law rather than legislation.

“There is a need to regularly update employment law so it keeps up to date with working practices and people’s experiences," he added.

Also speaking at the event, chief executive of the Resolution Trust Gavin Kelly suggested new powers were needed to prevent contract types used in perfectly fair, ethical ways by most from being used exploitatively. “There’s a point at which the law should say: ‘if someone is used in that way [on a zero-hours contract] and bearing the risk [of job insecurity] over a long period of time, they should have at least some sort of right to opt into a different relationship,” he said.

Taylor agreed. “It’s absolutely crucial people understand the terms on which they’re being employed,” he said. “But there comes a point where it doesn’t matter how transparent you are, the balance of risk is just so wrong”.

“I think enforcement has been shockingly inadequate in this country,” added Kelly. “That is the big issue and it’s not the sexiest of issues.”

He added that the UK needs better, and more innovative and relevant, trade union representation, citing the fact that someone in their 50s in a high earning public sector job is 26 times as likely to be represented as someone under 30 at the bottom of the pay scale in the private sector. “That’s one of the biggest inequalities in the UK today and no one’s talking about it because it’s not in anyone’s interest to do so,” he said.

He also called for more innovative use of technology to combat uncertainty around shift work, such as US shift swap app Shift. He caveated that he couldn’t “give many examples of that kind of thing in this country”.

Kelly said he was hopeful of positive change, however. “Public mood for discussion of equality of work is growing,” he said, saying he could see “potential policy shift on the horizon".

Taylor too was optimistic. Regarding his review into how employment practices need to change to keep pace with modern business models, he said: “It seems to me so far at least, there’s quite a high level of ministerial buy-in."

The CBI’s Carberry said that the challenge presenting policymakers was a “transitional rather than existential one”. Responding to our new world of work isn’t about preparing for a world where work doesn’t exist, he said. Rather: “A lot of our policy framework has to be about how we support people through the change.”

Among other measures, Citizens Advice is calling for a Fair Work Authority as a single body for enforcing workplace rights, reduced fees for tribunals, and a requirement for companies to publish the proportion of their workforce on different contract types.


Better awareness and enforcement of existing employment rights is not the solution at all - the solution is more and better employment rights. IE the rights that exist currently are weak and difficult to enforce - this is a based on political decisions to operate a 'flexible labour market'! Also we need to better facilitate trade union membership in these sectors...


There aren't enough resources to correctly enforce rights. Workers can indeed try and claim their rights, if they actually know what they are (many don't). But where there is an inequality of bargaining power this simply won't happen. It's a bit like having clients who don't pay on time. If you try and enforce late payment interest then you soon find you don't have a client. Vulnerable workers who try to claim rights will soon find they have no work at all. The answer is correct legislation and massive penalties for firms that misclassify their workers.

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