United Kingdom: Latest developments in working life Q2 2019

The resignation of the prime minister, the growing gig economy, the launch of two new trade unions and compensation for blacklisted construction workers are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in the United Kingdom in the second quarter of 2019.

Prime Minister resigns over lack of Brexit progress

Prime Minister Theresa May announced her resignation on 24 May. [1] This followed a failed attempt to secure a parliamentary majority for Brexit when her 10-point ‘new deal’ – which laid out a series of promises, including a binding vote on a referendum – was rejected by Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum, including her own cabinet, on 22 May. [2] Facing a second vote of no confidence, she resigned. As of yet, May’s replacement has not been chosen, although the election of Boris Johnson – an ardent Brexiteer who has stated that he would take the UK out of the EU without a deal – is the most probable outcome.  [3] The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has called upon the next prime minister to forge a new partnership with business and has again warned of the severe consequences of a no-deal Brexit. [4]

Gig economy work booms in the UK

The number of people doing gig economy work in the UK has doubled in the last three years, according to new research published on 28 June 2019 and supported by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS). The research, carried out by the University of Hertfordshire, with fieldwork and data collection by market research company Ipsos MORI, was based on responses to a survey from a representative 2,235 people. Results showed that nearly 1 in 10 (9.6%) working-age adults now work through gig economy platforms at least once a week, compared to around 1 in 20 (4.7%) in 2016. The survey also found that respondents generally rely on platform work to supplement other forms of income. The TUC commented that the results demonstrate how working people are battling to make ends meet, with huge numbers forced to take on casual and insecure platform work, often on top of other jobs. [5] The trade union called on the government to raise wages and improve employment protections for those doing gig economy work.

New unions for English language teachers and legal workers

Two independent unions were launched in Q2 2019, both in relatively unorganised sectors. They aim to recruit all workers in the sector, not just the specialists.

The TEFL Workers’ Union is for workers in the teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) industry, encompassing teachers, receptionists, admin staff and interns. Operating under the authority of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union, it was developed following events in a central London school where the majority of teaching staff joined the IWW. They were granted a number of improvements as a result, including in terms of pay, and the IWW then helped other TEFL staff in schools across the capital, organising union training for workers in the sector.

The Legal Sector Workers United (LSWU) union is for workers in the legal industry, encompassing occupations from cleaners and security guards to paralegals, as well as practicing solicitors and barristers.
It is coordinated through United Voices of the World (UVW) and aims to tackle the sector’s pay and inequality issues, as well as to make access to legal aid universal.

These launches follow the creation of a number of other independent unions by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, including those for games industry workers and foster carers. [6]

In another development, cross-union campaign group Unions21 launched a digital platform to encourage workers to speak out about problems at work. [7] WorksForUs allows workers to start and share an online petition on an issue they would like their employer to change. The platform was created with US-based CoWorker.

Blacklisted construction workers receive huge compensation

Fifty-three workers who were blacklisted by the construction industry are set to receive compensation totalling GBP 1.9 million (€2.1 million as at 26 July 2019) in settlement of their claims. The settlement is the latest in a court action brought by Unite in 2016, and means that major construction firms have paid out a total of GBP 35 million (€39.2 million) to more than 1,200 blacklisted workers in the last three years. [8] Moreover, in a legal breakthrough, the firms have agreed to place the substantial sum of GBP 230,000 (€257,455) into a training fund, to be administered by Unite, for all victims of blacklisting who have brought proceedings. The fund is not restricted to retraining in the construction sector.

The action brought by Unite centres on the activities of The Consulting Association (TCA), an organisation that created a secret database containing personal and employment information about more than 3,000 construction workers. Major construction companies funded and used the list to ensure that trade unionists and those who had raised concerns over health and safety on building sites would not find future employment. Hundreds of people were refused employment and lost their livelihoods as a result. The black list came to light in 2009, when the Information Commissioner’s Office raided the TCA’s premises. The scandal over the TCA’s activities led to the enactment of the Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010, which prohibits the compilation, use, sale or supply of blacklists.

Commentary

Brexit continues to create uncertainty, which is intensified by the political chaos accompanying it. Both candidates in the bid to be the next prime minister have said that they will not rule out a no-deal Brexit, despite the warnings on such an outcome from both business and labour (e.g. the CBI/TUC joint letter of 21 March [9]). A no-deal scenario could jeopardise employment rights that have emanated from the EU – critical in light of the expansion of the gig economy and the precariousness that typically characterises such ways of working.


Footnotes

  1. ^ The Guardian (2019), Theresa May announces she will resign on 7 June , 24 May.
  2. ^ The Guardian (2019), Brexit: May’s final effort to win backing falls flat as MPs reject ‘new’ deal , 22 May.
  3. ^ The Telegraph (2019), Next Prime Minister latest odds and polls: Boris Johnson's lead over Jeremy Hunt looks unassailable, 8 July.
  4. ^ PoliticsHome (2019), CBI warns Tory leadership hopefuls the UK must avoid a no-deal Brexit , 21 May.
  5. ^ TUC (2019), Boom in gig economy workers shows struggle to make ends meet , 28 June.
  6. ^ The Guardian (2016), Foster carers vote to unionise in fight for pay and working rights , 20 September.
  7. ^ Unions21 (2019­), About WorksForUs .
  8. ^ Unite the Union (2019), Unite secures historic million pound plus blacklisting legal settlement , 14 May.
  9. ^ TUC (2019), TUC and CBI call on Prime Minister to urgently change Brexit approach , 21 March.

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