The BBC has learned that Matthew Taylor, the head of the Government-commissioned inquiry into modern working practices, is about to recommend that workers on zero-hours contracts should be granted the “right to request” fixed hours.

Mr Taylor and his panel have become concerned that some workers are being exploited by businesses using this model of engagement. If the recommendation is granted, then employers will be obliged to respond “seriously” to workers’ requests and provide reasons for their decision.

The recommendation is in line with a similar proposal contained in a submission to the inquiry from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

Concerns about worker exploitation in relation to zero-hours contracts have been gathering momentum for some time, and a series of recent tribunal cases have favoured workers rather than employers.

Current estimates suggest that almost one million people are now working on zero-hours contracts, which deny those engaged on them full employee rights. These workers are designated instead as quasi-self-employed.

Sources informed the BBC that Mr Taylor is impressed by the example of McDonald’s, which gave all staff currently on zero-hours contracts the opportunity to move on to fixed hours. Twenty per cent of McDonald’s employees engaged on a zero-hours contract asked to transfer to fixed hours, while the remainder were content to stay with the flexibility afforded by contracts without specified hours.

Representatives of the UK’s highly skilled professional contracting community, however, have expressed equally pressing concerns that any forthcoming regulatory interventions by the Government should be nuanced enough to distinguish unambiguously between well-remunerated, skilled contractors and relatively unskilled, low-paid contingent workers.

Clearly, the latter have need of protections to prevent unscrupulous exploitation, but skilled Umbrella Company Employees such as teachers, nurses, social workers or IT contractors would willingly waive these protections in favour of retaining maximum flexibility.

The Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo) addressed this very issue directly in its recently launched manifesto. The trade association for specialist professional recruiters made it clear in that document that there is a pressing need to differentiate clearly between well-paid contracting professionals and lower-paid contingent workers who are more vulnerable to exploitation.

To achieve this, APSCo believes that a new tax and regulatory framework is required. This would place skilled professional freelance talent outside the protections designed to protect vulnerable workers. Such a framework would enable the Government to protect the latter without restricting the ability of contracting professionals to deliver their services as flexibly as they choose.

To that end, APSCo is calling for a new status for these independent professionals that would recognise their right to waive the protections included in legislation such as the Agency Workers Regulations.

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