Imagine a worker having his contract terminated for taking time off because his child was born prematurely, or a courier struggling in while sick, being told “the parcel is more important then you.”
Except you don’t have to imagine such outrages – they actually happened.
MPs on the Commons business select committee heard these disturbing stories when they questioned bosses from three of the biggest companies in the gig economy – taxi firm Uber, food delivery service Deliveroo and couriers Hermes.
The politicians say evidence from their constituents is that life has to fit around work in the gig world, and there was a “chasm” between what the bosses maintain and the reality of what actually happens.
Reality for Unite is having to deal with a growing number of cases of bogus self -employment, zero hours contracts, falling pay and the huge growth in agency work.
Assistant general secretary Steve Turner said the business model of firms in the gig economy is built around slashing costs, promoting false self-employment and casual contracts while refusing to deal with trade unions.
“We are faced with a government which is hell-bent on de-regulation and attacking the trade unions and employers spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on lawyers looking for the next scam,” he said. “Agencies now provide permanent workforces so they can be excluded from the agency workers directive, denying workers their rights.
“It is getting worse, so we need new ways to make unions relevant and find a way to get collective bargaining back.”
Steve and the Unite team won plaudits for taking on Sports Direct by confronting the retail giant over its working practices, exposing the appalling treatment of workers and making sure the union’s campaign remains high profile.
But for every Sports Direct, there are many smaller firms taking part in the race to the bottom on employment rights.
Unite has set up a special unit which meets regularly to tackle cases of “extreme malpractice”.
Assistant general secretary Howard Beckett said the unit had unearthed some “extraordinary” examples, including workers being required to set up their own limited company so they actually end up paying employers’ National Insurance.
“It is rife across all sectors of industry. Bogus self-employment used to be concentrated in construction but it has spread.”
Howard believes the practice started in construction firms as a way of getting rid of unions following the blacklisting scandal, but has now spread to employment agencies and gig companies.
The hotel sector has proved to be one of the most difficult for Unite to check into, with workers being gagged from even talking about unions, and some of the biggest operators prepared to take legal action to prevent proper recognition.
But Unite has managed to open a door after years of campaigning finally paid off with Spanish hotel group Melia.
National officer Rhys McCarthy admits Unite had a difficult time persuading the company to deal with the union, but three years, and a demonstration later, an agreement has been signed.
“We now have access to a five star hotel and at one our first meetings with workers, 56 staff turned up, including housekeepers, receptionists and waitresses – traditionally some of the hardest to reach workers,” Rhys said.
“It’s small scale, but we believe it’s a historic breakthrough and a wake-up call for the hotel sector.”
One potential wake-up call which has ended up being a whimper was the outcome of a government review into the employment rights of workers in the gig economy.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, who headed the review, said he favoured making improvements through a “nudge” rather than a “shove”, arguing that “incremental” change was better than using a “big stick” against companies.
But a nudge is hardly going to change the working culture of Britain, which is increasingly stacked against employees.
Unite’s general secretary Len McCluskey said the review had raised the prospect that the scourge of insecure working would be tackled, that work would once again pay and there would be no profit in exploitation, restoring fairness and dignity to working life.
“It has spectacularly failed to deliver on any of these. The report does nothing to address the rampaging growth in forced self-employment, which has shot up as the government’s austerity programme bites.
“One in six workers in this country falls into this category, denied sick pay, holiday pay, their basic rights and a pension.
“Instead of the serious programme the country urgently needs to ensure that once again work pays in this country, we got a depressing sense that insecurity is the inevitable new norm,” he added.
A paper submitted to the review drawn up by officials including Unite’s head of research, John Earls, made a series of recommendations which were not acted on –from banning zero hours contracts and unpaid internships, outlawing bogus self employment, giving younger workers the higher minimum wage and having union members on boards.
“Proper regulation of the labour market, in partnership with trade unions, must be a cornerstone of a modern economy,” the Unite submission said.
“A properly regulated labour market must end bogus self-employment, social dumping, the use of zero hours contracts and close the loopholes of fake subcontracting, all of which result in undercutting of terms and conditions.”
TUC research has shown that by 2022 there could be 3.5m people in insecure work such as zero hours contracts, temporary or agency work and low paid self-employment.
Howard Beckett believes the predictions show how crucial a Labour government is for workers, describing the party’s hugely popular election manifesto as the ‘bible’ of what is needed to ensure fair treatment at work.
With its campaigns, industrial action and legal challenges, Unite is certainly doing more than praying for change.
This feature first appeared in Unite’s members magazine uniteWORKS. You can read the latest edition on the Unite website here. Or as a Unite member you can receive a print or digital copy by changing your membership records through My Unite or by contacting your local regional office regional membership admin team.