New trends in the labour market

Like a musician who goes from one gig to the next, the gig economy refers to a growing range of workers who don’t have typical stable employment but work as self-employed and temporary contractors

Last Sunday, the GWU weekly it-Torca carried a front-page story citing a US researcher’s work about concerns on workers’ rights being trampled upon in the so-called online platform economy.

It followed the story by an editorial saying that nowadays there are new forms of jobs and that labour laws and union procedures should be reformed to cover these types of jobs as well. The editorial went as far as to say that every worker should be obliged to join a trade union, ignoring the fact that such an obligation would be in breach of the right for association – a fundamental human right – that includes the right to refuse being part of an association.

On Thursday the GWU daily l-orrizont carried an interview with Gianna Fracassa, Regional Secretary of the Italian General Confederation of Labour, (CGIL) about co-operation between the Italian body and the GWU. Apart from the interesting issue regarding the substantial number of Italians working in Malta, Fracassa spoke about a concept that CGIL wants to be adopted by the EU: the principle that every employed person has basic duties and rights. This would apply to all workers, irrespective of their working on a permanent or a temporary contract and irrespective of whether the worker is an independent self-employed worker. This even includes people giving professional services. All these persons should have basic rights.    

Fracassa explained that the CGIL has asked the European Parliament to start the process for a change in EU labour laws – a change motivated by digitalisation and other technical aspects that are being introduced in the economy. Fracassa quoted the obvious example: currently many of this type of workers do not have any protection in case of sickness or injury.

This makes more sense than Sunday’s editorial of it-Torca. Perhaps the idea was lost in translation!

The fact that on Sunday it-Torca referred to the work of a US researcher intrigued me no end because, I do not doubt that the situation in the US is different from that in the EU.

In the US, this sort of working relationship is called a gig job and talk about the growing gig economy has become the order of the day. In the US, ‘gig’ is slang for a live musical performance. Originally coined in the 1920s by jazz musicians, the term, short for the word  ‘engagement’, now refers to any type of work.

Like a musician who goes from one gig to the next, the gig economy refers to a growing range of workers who don’t have typical stable employment but work as self-employed and temporary contractors.

In the so called ‘gig economy’, temporary, flexible jobs are commonplace and companies tend toward hiring independent contractors and freelancers instead of giving permanent jobs to full-time employees. A gig economy undermines the traditional economy of full-time and part-time workers who rarely change positions and instead focus on a lifetime career.

Approximately 150 million workers in north America and western Europe have left the relatively stable confines of organisational life to work as independent contractors. Some of this growth reflects the emergence of task-oriented service platforms, but knowledge-intensive industries and creative occupations are the largest and fastest-growing segments of the freelance economy.

In July 2017 a report known as ‘The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices’ was submitted to the UK government concerning employee and worker rights in UK labour law. It got its name from its Chairman, Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of the Arts.

The Taylor Review called for a new category of worker that gives those in the gig economy some employment benefits and ensures a decent wage. This proposal falls short of giving them full-time employee status and the full protections that that would bring.

The UK government responded to the Taylor review by recognising that flexibility has to be balanced with other objectives like social inclusion, social justice and fiscal sustainability. It did not take any concrete steps, however, and trade unions insist that currently some 1.8 million workers in the UK have been left without any fundamental rights.

The rapid growth in the gig economy suggests that this is the future of work, raising the question of whether a lack of job security, lower pay and fewer benefits should be acceptable.

This also raises the question of whether traditional trade unions have a role in these new trends in the labour market. These concerns are real, not imagined.

How to solve this conundrum, however, must take a lot of imagination. Giving these rights to everyone on paper is possible, but ensuring that regulatory authorities and trade unions can act when these rights are ignored, is not so easy.

The usual ‘steps’ that trade unions can take in so-called industrial disputes would hardly hurt anyone.

This leads me to conclude that in this case the role of trade unions would be vague and ineffective. It would hardly produce any results to the benefit of the workers being defended.

After all, perhaps it is simply a case of trade unions reaching for a lifeline as more workers opt for the gig economy rather than for a traditional job.


Opening the doors of Europe

The doors of Europe are open to criminals and the corrupt, thanks to lax, opaque, and mismanaged ‘Golden Visa’ schemes, according to a report issued last Wednesday by Transparency International and Global Witness. The two anti-corruption organisations say the financial benefit of citizenship- and residency-by-investment schemes is undercut by risks arising from insufficient due diligence, conflicts of interest, and wide discretionary powers.

The report was published just weeks after Finnish police raided a real-estate agency at the centre of a suspected €10 million money-laundering operation, controlled by a Russian businessman who reportedly had purchased Maltese citizenship.

The report claims that at least six thousand passports and nearly 100,000 residency permits have been sold in the EU in the last decade. Spain, Hungary, Latvia, Portugal and the United Kingdom have granted the highest numbers of these – over 10,000 each.

The report does not suggest that these schemes should be abolished but recommends the setting up of several EU-wide standards for such schemes, including enhanced due diligence and transparency; the regular identification and assessment of the risks posed by schemes for the EU as a whole and the resulting mitigation measures; and also the widening of anti-money laundering rules so that they apply to all players in the golden visa industry.

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