"May will tell bosses to give workers more rights" declared the front page of the Times last week, while the Guardian announced that the "PM backs plans to overhaul workers' rights." With such trumpeting in support of workers, you could be forgiven for thinking we are living under a Labour, rather than a Conservative, Government. What is going on?
In fact these headlines all relate to a recent interview by Matthew Taylor, the man in charge of Theresa May's review of modern employment practices. The final report isn't due to be published until June, but Taylor seems keen to keep his name in the news by giving regular snapshots of his findings. This time it appears that evidence has been found to show that companies are trying to avoid providing individuals with statutory entitlements and rights (such as sick pay or pension benefits) by taking on supposedly self-employed contractors in posts previously held by salaried staff.
To be honest, controversy over worker status isn't a particularly dramatic revelation, especially given the number of cases on the subject we've seen recently (including one currently in the Employment Tribunal brought by a London cycle courier). But is this all really about protecting workers? Certainly May is on record as saying workers' rights will be "protected and enhanced by a Conservative government" and promising that existing workers' EU rights will continue to be guaranteed in law after Brexit.
However, the cynic in me thinks the most insightful message we've had from Matthew Taylor is his belief that businesses are using self-employment laws to avoid tax. The reality is that, according to a report by the TUC, an extra million people have become self-employed in the last ten years with a corresponding reduction in revenue for the Government of more than £5 billion (as a result of lower income tax and national insurance contributions paid in respect of self-employed contractors). That's a large hole and one which the Government must be keen to plug, particularly in the context of its recent budget U-turn on national insurance contributions for the self-employed.
Matthew Taylor has promised to focus on the issue of "control" in his report. In other words, expect recommendations along the lines that if companies want control over the people they engage they should provide them with worker rights and entitlements (and pay the necessary tax to boot); otherwise companies should be banned from imposing control and sanctions on the genuinely self-employed. Politics is obviously a fickle business, not helped by Brexit and temperamental backbenchers, so who knows where Theresa May may end up going with this one. What is clear though, in the words of Matthew Taylor, is that we are entering a "new era of workplace relations", in which companies would be well advised to tread carefully when considering the employment status of new recruits.