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#InsecureWork in modern day Britain: precarious by name, precarious by nature

Author: Bharat Mehta, Advisor, Trust for London

Low pay; zero-hours contracts; the gig economy; the introduction of employment tribunal fees. We are living in an age in which the agency, rights and dignity of a significant part of Britain’s workforce are being stripped away. Just last week, we had headlines telling us that the plight of today’s workforce had a lot in common with pre-industrial Britain.

These were not the words of a ‘usual suspect’ but those of the respected and independent Bank of England economist, Andy Haldane. He highlighted similarities between the low trade union membership, rise of self-employment and low wage growth we see today and employment in Britain prior to the Industrial Revolution.

Research we have commissioned at Trust for London shows that work is still the most important route out of poverty and to a better standard of living. However, 10 years on from the TUC’s Commission on Vulnerable Employment, statistics show the extent of insecure work in Britain has worsened. We are concerned about the high levels of low pay many face, with 1 in 5 London workers paid below the London Living Wage.

The growth of low-paid self-employment is a particularly concerning trend. Partly as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, the number of self-employed workers in the UK has risen, now accounting for over 1 in 7 workers. In London, nearly 1 in 5 workers are self-employed and while in many cases this allows individuals to take ownership of their lives, it often confines people and their families to a life of hardship, struggling to make ends meet.

Research by the Social Market Foundation (SMF), funded by Trust for London, shows that 1.7m low-paid workers are not covered by the national living wage because it does not cover the self-employed. By 2020, this number will rise to 1.88m workers. Welfare support on offer to these families is not sufficient, with around 40% who are in receipt of in-work benefits likely to be worse off by 2022 under Universal Credit. In order to tackle insecure work, we need to improve wages and job security, supported by an adequate safety net which protects those in work who are subject to poverty wages.

New forms of work offered by platforms like Uber and Deliveroo have brought new challenges, with some people being bogusly classified as self-employed so that employers need not provide basic employment rights. We hope court cases brought against these firms will lead to much needed changes in the employment status of these workers, guaranteeing their basic employment rights like holiday pay and sick pay. Victories for workers of City Sprint and Uber suggest widespread change may be on the horizon.

Today’s TUC conference on job insecurity is an important and timely event that we at Trust for London are proud to support. Our work with the SMF and via the Employment Legal Advice Network shows there are solutions to the problems I have mentioned. For example, addressing the tax and regulation gap between employees and the self-employed, as well as naming and shaming employers who fail to pay their workers the national living wage. Supporting insecure workers into higher pay is a crucial step in improving job security in Britain and we welcome Matthew Taylor’s review on modern employment practices, which the Trust submitted a response to, and hope the Government takes forward the recommendations made by the review, once published.

The #InsecureWork conference shows there is great appetite to initiate widespread change to improve the lives and prospects of Britain’s insecure workforce and I am confident that by gathering policymakers, unions and civil society, strides can be taken to combat the rise of insecure work in modern day Britain.