U.K.’s top archbishop preaches against Amazon’s sins, ‘evil’ of gig economy
Welby accuses tech firms of avoiding taxes, calls for building more just society
Britain’s Archbishop of Canterbury denounced the gig economy and zero hours contracts as “evil” and accused Amazon and other tech companies of “leeching off” the U.K. by avoiding taxes.
Justin Welby, the most senior cleric in the Church of England, also urged businesses to work toward a more just society and encouraged workers to join labour unions in a speech to the Trades Union Congress in Manchester, northern England on Wednesday.
Welby, 62, was formerly an executive at Enterprise Oil and Elf Aquitaine before switching careers.
“Not paying taxes speaks of an absence of commitment to our shared humanity, solidarity and justice,” he said in the section focused on Amazon.com Inc. and other online firms. “If you earn money from a community, you should pay your share of tax to that community.
“I was in business, and I know that, within limits, it’s right and proper for people to arrange their tax affairs, and for companies to do so. But when vast companies like Amazon, and other online traders, the new industries, can get away with paying almost nothing in tax, there is something wrong with the tax system.”
The level of tax paid by large U.S. tech companies is a contentious issue in the U.K. Many of them — along with other multinationals — have moved profits to countries including Luxembourg and Ireland to lower costs.
Welby said of the companies, “They don’t pay a real living wage, so the tax payer must support their workers with benefits. And having leeched off the tax payer once they don’t pay for our defence, for security, for stability, for justice, for health, for equality, for education. Then they complain of an undertrained workforce — from the education they have not paid for.”
Amazon issued a statement saying it pays all due taxes and looks after its employees in the U.K., where it’s invested more than US$12.1 billion and created 25,000 jobs.
“We pay all taxes required in the U.K. and every country where we operate,” Amazon said. “Employees are offered a comprehensive benefits package, including private medical insurance, life assurance, income protection, subsidized meals and an employee discount, which combined are worth more than £700 million annually, as well as a company pension plan.”
It was an unusually political speech for a British church leader. Welby also said Prime Minister Theresa May’s government should halt the rollout of its controversial Universal Credit welfare program “if they can’t get it right,” and said employees were being oppressed by insecure work arrangements. The Universal Credit replaces other welfare benefits in Britain with one payment.
He added, “The gig economy, zero-hours contracts, are nothing new — it is simply the reincarnation of an ancient evil.”
And he attacked “the profit motive” that led to “the weakest being given the most risk and the strongest the most protection”.
He said: “In these areas and in employment rights and in many others, we see that where inequality and profound injustice seem entrenched, it leads to instability in our society.”
He was speaking on the same stage where a day earlier John McDonnell, economy spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, had pledged to give workers in the socalled gig economy the same employment rights as regular staff, including sick pay, paid holidays and parental leave and protections against unfair dismissal.
Pressure is building on compa- nies operating in the gig economy, which includes Uber and other app-based firms, after the U.K.’s top judges ruled in June that Pimlico Plumbers in London should have treated one of its tradesmen as a “worker,” giving the plumber the right to vacation pay and other benefits.
Last year the prime minister pledged at the launch of a review into modern working practices to make sure workers in the gig economy “are all properly protected”.
The government subsequently announced it would give millions of workers new day-one rights with sick and holiday pay to be enforced for vulnerable workers for the first time.
Welby defended his right to speak out on political issues, though he warned that no side of the debate should claim God was on their side.
“Jesus was highly political,” he said. “He told the rich that they would face woes, he criticized the king of the time as a fox and he spoke harsh words to leader of the nations when they were uncaring of the needy.”
Charles Walker, a Tory MP, said the Archbishop was “increasingly involved in politics” but should “remove his dog collar and promote his views from the same position as any other politician.”
Britain’s Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, formerly an executive at Enterprise Oil and Elf Aquitaine, has unleashed criticism against tech companies including Amazon, which he accuses of leeching off tax payers and not paying living wages.