U.K.’s Top Archbishop Rips Into Amazon and ‘Evil’ Gig Economy

(Bloomberg) -- Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the most senior cleric in the Church of England, denounced the gig economy as “evil” and accused Amazon and other tech companies of “leeching off” the U.K. by avoiding taxes.

Welby, 62, who was an executive at Enterprise Oil Plc and Elf Aquitaine SA before switching careers, also urged businesses to work toward a more just society and encouraged workers to join labor unions in a speech to the Trades Union Congress in Manchester, northern England.

“Not paying taxes speaks of an absence of commitment to our shared humanity, solidarity and justice,” he said Wednesday 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.”

Read more: Amazon’s U.K. Unit Sees Tax Bill Plummet as Profits Triple

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.

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 9.3 billion pounds ($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 pounds annually, as well as a company pension plan.”

‘Real Living Wage’

“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 defense, for security, for stability, for justice, for health, for equality, for education,” Welby said of the companies. “Then they complain of an undertrained work force -- from the education they have not paid for.”

It was an unusually political speech for a British church leader. Welby also said Prime Minister Theresa May’s government should halt the roll-out of its controversial Universal Credit welfare program “if they can’t get it right,” and said employees are being oppressed by insecure work arrangements.

“The gig economy, zero-hours contracts, are nothing new -- it is simply the reincarnation of an ancient evil,” the archbishop said.

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 so-called gig economy the same employment rights as regular staff, including sick pay, paid holidays and parental leave and protections against unfair dismissal.

Lawsuits

Pressure is building on companies operating in the gig economy, which includes Uber Inc. and other app-based firms, after the U.K.’s top judges ruled in June that Pimlico Plumbers Ltd. should have treated one of its tradesmen as a “worker,” giving the plumber the right to vacation pay and other benefits.

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.”

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