A bill eliminating zero-hours contracts and providing greater protection for workers in precarious work is due to have its second reading in parliament tomorrow.

The Workers (Definition and Rights) Bill, sponsored by SNP MP Chris Stephens, also aims to define the status of workers in law; refine the current definitions in light of recent Supreme Court judgments; and to provide greater protection from day one of a person’s employment.

When introducing the bill to parliament, Stephens made clear that he wanted to prompt a general debate about what is “fair work” and bring some clarity to the definition of “worker” by defining what rights are available and consolidating a single statutory definition of the people to whom employment rights and duties apply.

This, he said, was because “The clear implication is that full-time secure employment with rights, a pension and clearly defined hours [has become] an outdated 20th-century concept, instead of the peak of a hard-fought struggle to redress the balance between employer and employee—or, at its most extreme, exploiter and exploited”. 

Whilst acknowledging that the recent government-sponsored Taylor report on the so-called “gig” economy identified the need for greater clarity in the law, Stephens argued that its main focus was consumers and employers, rather than workers. Indeed, it was clear, he said, from Taylor’s evidence to the parliamentary committee that he was influenced by the Treasury submission on costs. Stephens pointed out that Taylor also admitted that if he had known that the Supreme Court was going to rule against the Government on employment tribunal fee costs (weekly LELR 531); he would have been more robust in his report on the case for abolishing those costs. 

In addition to failing to acknowledge the role of trade unions in the report, Stephens pointed out that Taylor failed to reference the United Nations International Labour Organisation standards and the four pillars of decent work—employment creation, social protection, rights at work and social dialogue.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the SNP MP concluded that “[t]he research methodology, the time frame and the resources available to produce the report all point to this being a bit of a fig leaf to hide the Government’s true stance and intentions towards workers and their rights.” Hence the need for his bill.

Iain Birrell of Thompsons Solicitors commented: “The text of the bill is yet to be published which is a shame, because the issue of defining workers’ status is a legally complex one and any legislation which aims to simplify it will need proper consideration. It is not useful to speculate on what might appear there, but what is certain is that it will take great care and thought to ensure that legislation that seeks to simplify the position does inadvertently end up achieving the opposite outcome. We look forward to reading the bill when it is published.”

Visit the government website to read the full debate and click to keep up to date with the passage of the bill.