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

Calgary Herald - - FINANCIAL POST - THOMAS PENNY

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.”

CHRIS J RAT­CLIFFE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES FILES

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.

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