Connor Short is the Youth Coordinator of Toryworkers, the Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
The Government has issued its very welcomed response to the Taylor Review. In it, Ministers outline how they will consult with the aim of fixing gaps in workers rights. This is very encouraging. The response suggests that the Government must provide rights for agency workers, and that the minimum wage should be available to all workers. Here are my hopes for the future of workers’ rights and how a stronger minimum wage can be implemented.
The latter has become a staple of workers’ rights, and the foundation of many employee contracts. Approximately two million people are helped by the minimum wage, but more should be entitled to it. Currently, many workers are forced to work on a self-employed basis by their agency. There is nothing in the way of allowing these agencies to employ their workers, rather than hire. However, they prefer using the self-employed worker model, since there is greater flexibility for them in relation to workers’ rights, including the minimum wage. But these rights should never be flexible at workers’ expense.
In my own experience, I was once offered a 12 hour contract for £60 to appear as an extra in a film, working out at £5 per hour. Even workers over the age of 25 were offered this deal. In response, I called up my agency to ask them to renegotiate the contract.
What followed was escalating tensions and a fairly large boycott of the same offer by the rest of the extras. Most people turned down the offer on being offered it. Not out of a lack of decent pay, but out of honour and respect for the need for workers rights. Ever since, every contract offered for this work has been over the minimum wage.
However, all is not done. The opportunity for agencies to offer contracts below the minimum wage are still there. Hopefully, the Government will make good on its word of seeking ways of avoiding bogus self-employment. Agencies such as the one I work with have the opportunity to employ their workers on zero hour contracts, but don’t do so because that puts them at a disadvantage in the competitiveness of their industry, in which most agencies employ actors on a self-employed basis. This needs to change.
I must also stress that other expenses should be factored into the minimum wage. Each contract I get offered by the agency is subject to a 15 per cent commission deduction and a three per cent VAT deduction. In such cases, I would have completed 12 hours work for just £49.20, before expenses. That’s just £4.10 per hour. On top of this, workers must allow a registration fee to be deducted from the first pay slip of each year. Currently this is £32.50, meaning that the total pay in this case could have been just £16.70 (£1.40 per hour).
It is true that annual registration fees help to provide the income necessary to complete the administrative paperwork for each new worker. However, it leaves agency workers paying for the right to work in some cases, considering the expense of travel to work (sometimes to the tune of hundreds of pounds). That’s money that they, in many cases, can’t afford to fork out, for the simple end of making matters easier for the managers at the agency.
Currently, the Government is seeking ways of avoiding bogus self-employment. I suggest exploring the possibility of categorising self- employed work into two categories. The first would be the current model of self-employed work. Then there would be a second model of agency-supplied self-employed work.
Of course, there are numerous ways in which self-employed work is very hard to apply a minimum wage to, including the lack of certainty over some jobs’ required time. However, in contracts for self-employed work negotiated and provided by an agency, the decision over pay is taken out of the hands of the worker. It is a worker’s right to receive fair pay for fair work. The only protection of fair pay that self-employed agency workers receive is the recommendations provided by respective unions.
That is not enough, considering that there are large production companies paying below rate and even below the minimum wage. Changing the law to require certain models of self-employment to be subject to workers’ rights would open the gateway, and finally allow many people access to workers rights for, in some cases, the first time.
Furthermore, it is worth considering the value of the minimum wage. It both protects workers from unfair payment and indicates respect for the work in question. With regard to the latter, I would like to see the minimum wage extended to 13, 14 and 15 year olds – to finally see respect shown for young citizens who pursue a proactive work life, and encourage people to enter and adapt to the world of work at their earliest opportunity.
What many Conservatives have in common is their level of proactivity and commitment to work. We should be encouraging that sort of commitment and behaviour, rather than letting it go unrewarded. We shouldn’t worry too much about pushing under 16s away from education, as there are already restrictions in place to prevent employment from disrupting education. In similar fashion to apprenticeships, it is important to note that many people learn just as much as at school, and often more, from the workplace. It is important to show that we acknowledge this type of development and support it.