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Trade Unions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:08 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho Crossbench 1:08 pm, 18th July 2019

My Lords, I declare my interests as noted in the register, most particularly as founder and chair of Doteveryone, a small charity championing responsible technology, and as a board member of Twitter. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, for his fantastic introduction. I was so delighted that technology played such a central role in the way he expressed the past and future of the trade union movement.

As with everything, the world of digital is blowing apart with a tidal wave the ways of working and the sectors in which we have operated in the past. Some of this is miraculous. I am sure that many in the Chamber have enjoyed the extraordinary services of Deliveroo to their front door. I bet many noble Lords have jumped in an Uber, and, considering the quality of the speeches this morning, I think many might put their work on freelancewriting.com, where you can get cheap speeches written for you by experts. We have seen many gains as a society and as consumers from the fantastic pace of change and the flexible and independent nature of work today. But, as I hope to argue in my short remarks, there are many perils. We underestimate them at our very grave risk.

Some 4.5 million people are employed in the so-called gig economy right now. That is one in 10 workers. This is a huge number of people without the stability of employment. While this can be fantastically empowering if you can work on the terms you wish for, it can also be fantastically stressful and make you feel insecure and anxious. Often these barriers fall on the most vulnerable people already; I particularly think of women and those with children or in solo care of a parent, child or other relation. These are complex challenges. I am 46. People of my generation will have around 12 careers in their lifetimes. My first cousin is 25. She is more likely to have 22 careers in her lifetime. If you are 10, half the jobs that will be open to you have not even been invented yet. This is a dramatically changing world, as many noble Lords have highlighted, a world in which it is hard to reflect on how we should help and protect people who want to work in new ways and who face the challenges of the dramatic shifts in workplace.

This is why we face a huge hotchpotch of regulations and attempts by unions, not just here but all over the world, to come to terms with these brave new ways of working. I am sure noble Lords are aware of some of the changes in Scandinavia, where there is no minimum wage but where individual collectives have negotiated with employers—a different model, but one that perhaps reflects more easily the changing nature of work.

Here we have struggled deeply to come to terms with some of these new and extremely powerful organisations. I pick Uber as an example. I have mixed feelings about this company. My own charity, Doteveryone, did some research on how consumers felt about some of the new platform-based businesses. One woman told us that she had been punched in the face twice by Uber drivers, yet continues to use the service nearly every week, for me a profound metaphor for where our relationship with technology sits. We seem to have a reactive view of this company in particular. They are taxed massively, even though most of the fleet are electric cars, while diesel taxis parade around London with no barrier to the exhaust fumes they let off into society. At the same time, we know that an Uber driver’s average wage is about £5 an hour, yet we seem unable to enforce the minimum wage for its hundreds of thousands of workers.

I say this not just to pick on Uber, but as an example of the complexity around how we unpick some of these new ways of working and new businesses. It is not just the so-called gig economy. Even in the main technology sector, the fastest-growing bit of our economy relies deeply on freelance and temporary workers. I have to reflect on Twitter—a company whose board I sit on—Facebook, YouTube and many other content-driven businesses that use a huge number of contractors, not full-time employees, to do the essential work of content moderation. As was exposed most recently by some journalists in the US, their work is often done in unfathomably bad conditions. They are exposed to content that none of us would want to see once in a lifetime, let alone many times an hour.

Again, these are complex problems to unpick. I would like to raise three challenges for the Minister and suggest three small solutions. First—and I am afraid that if you have heard me speak before, I will sound like a cracked record—we desperately need to build the digital skills and understanding of the most vulnerable in our society. This has not happened at the pace we need to build resilience in a strong economy in the future. Many millions of adults still cannot use any technology at all, or have no access to it or ability to pay for it; there are also several million more who do not have the next level of understanding and literacy to be able to look for work and find the opportunities that many of us take for granted. Some 90% of jobs are advertised only online, yet we still have many millions of adults who do not have access to the internet or the ability to use it. We have to keep fighting to build digital skills among our entire working population. I would love to hear the Minister’s thoughts on this.

Secondly, there are specific things that I believe we can do to help the workers in the so-called gig economy. One of the things that Doteveryone looked at was the portability of data. It may sound technical but is actually very important. If I work for one or other of the platform-based services, such as Rated People, as a builder, a plumber or whatever—a fantasy if you look at me, I know, but if I were able to be that skilled—I have no ability to take with me my working history. I can walk out of here and get a reference; none of the people in these platform-based businesses can do that. We argue that it is essential to think of exciting new ways to legislate around how people can move between these different jobs, especially if you think about the number of times people will have to shift careers in future. There need to be specific pieces of legislation, and not everyone has ideas about that.

Finally, as mentioned here many times before, we need to reinvigorate the trade union movement, build its digital skills and understanding and come up with creative new ways to help empower people. I believe deeply that the UK has an enormous global opportunity here. While I salute many people in our Government who stand up and say that we are going to have the biggest AI sector in the world or that this will be the best place to start a digital business, I am afraid I do not believe it. We have to look for other opportunities. We are a small country with a relatively challenging level of digitisation in our society. Protection of workers, clear frameworks of legislation and forward-thinking, digital-based legislation are where I believe we can triumph in the new world.