Given my role leading the Government Review into Modern Employment this is a poignant time of year.
For many of us these days before Christmas are quite enjoyable as work demands ebb, the office atmosphere becomes festive and even commuting gets easier as people leave the city. But for many workers there will be no let up until they are finally released to their family sometime late on Christmas Eve (for some, of course, Christmas itself is a working day). And, as always, the workers with the most pressure and the least freedom will tend to be those on the lowest pay and with the worst conditions.
Although the Review is charged with looking at ‘modern’ employment, it is pretty clear to me that we have to take a view about work as a whole. There isn’t much point trying to align opportunities and protections in new areas like the gig economy with traditional work if the latter is itself too often inadequate. Many recent media stories about grim working practices are in conventional forms of employment like warehousing and retail, albeit often delivered through agencies.
Improving modern employment relies on a broader national commitment to decent work. This means defining ‘decent’. A recent report of the Scottish Fair Work convention provides a good starting point suggesting five dimensions to good work; ‘opportunity’, ‘security’, ‘respect’, ‘fulfilment’ and ‘effective voice’.
The last of these dimensions highlights another necessary change in our thinking. The ‘voluntarist’ tradition of industrial relations in the UK arguably relied on an unspoken compromise between managers, unenthusiastic about employee engagement, and trade unions leaders, for whom the only engagement that matters is collective bargaining undertaken by paid up members. This thinking informed the design of Information and Consultation Rights for workers introduced in 2005. The rights are only activated if conscientious managers or determined workers take the initiative. This helps to explain the subsequent low take up and the evidence which suggests that the workplaces that have enacted the arrangements are the ones which already had relatively good employment practices.
Voluntarism assumes there is no public interest in how employers and employees engage. This can be questioned on two grounds. Firstly, evidence suggests that employees who feel empowered and engaged at work have higher wellbeing and, as a corollary, lower rates of illness and are less likely to drop out of employment on health grounds: A reason some poor employers rely on agency workers is that mean- minded managerial practices lead to very high rates of staff turnover. Second, higher levels of employee engagement are also associated with higher workplace productivity. In short, employee voice may be too important to society to be left to the whim of managerial good will or trade union organisation.
If a commitment to decent work and a questioning of the voluntarist tradition are two important factors influencing whether the Review has an impact, a third is the willingness to be innovative and ambitious about reform. Over the medium term a better employment system for businesses and consumers as well as workers will require us to explore the foundations of our tax system (although the Review is not empowered to make specific recommendations), to regulate more intelligently and adaptively and to appreciate the implications and potential benefits of technological change. To offer a speculative example of the last of these; a move to entirely cashless payment for all forms of labour could both improve compliance with rules and regulations, which is good for Government and taxpayers, while potentially helping casual workers and the self-employed by reducing paperwork and providing easier access to contributory entitlements such as pensions or paid parental leave.
The Review is exploring a number of immediate measures to improve modern employment, albeit recognising the danger that reforms simply create a new set of hurdles for accountants, lawyers, unscrupulous employers and tax-avoiding employees to circumvent.
In the early months of next year we will be out and about discussing our ideas in ten ‘consultative roadshows’ across the UK. As well as specific reform proposals those discussions should also test the public’s support for the ambition and boldness needed to make decency and fairness an expectation for all types of worker.