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In advance of a national conference on the future of work, Sir Brendan Barber, Acas Chair, argues that anyone who aims to influence the world of work has to understand the ever- shifting policy focus between regulation, in the form of legally enforceable rights, and discretion, where behaving in a certain way is advisory but not enforceable.

Has the growth in individual employment rights – at the expense of collective rights – provided more or less protection for workers? How many employers genuinely accept responsibility for issues that stretch beyond the confines of legislation, such as bullying? Should line managers play such a pivotal role in motivating, engaging and looking after their staff?  Over recent years, significant changes in the employment relations landscape have raised interesting questions like these about the delicate balance between legal rights and voluntary change.

Getting the balance right between the ‘I must’ and ‘I should’ and the needs of employees and business, has never seemed more critical. At one extreme, too much focus on rights, and employment regulation becomes burdensome and inhibits business growth; on the other, too much of a light touch on enforcement, and the demand for flexibility may result in worker exploitation. 

The re-invigorated debate about ‘good work’, initiated by Matthew Taylor’s Review of Modern Working Practices, has added another dimension. Should there be a minimum set of standards – covering rights and responsibilities – that apply to all jobs of all kinds?  The RSA’s interest in the concept of ‘flexicurity’ is, I think, an attempt to lessen the risk of polarisation between competing interests and achieve long-lasting balance. But if good work is to become the benchmark for how we rebalance working relationships in the fourth industrial revolution, who is responsible for safeguarding it?

Although everyone has their own slightly different take, there is a broad consensus about what constitutes good work. I spelt out my own thoughts, along with Matthew and many others, in the Improvement and Participation Association (IPA) report, Working Well; Perspectives on good work and why it matters. Some of the essential ingredients are rightly protected by employment law; such as those around working time, pay and health and safety (Brexit notwithstanding). Others are more open to employer discretion, like employee voice, skills development and wellbeing.  Looking ahead, a further complicating factor is that some of the principles of good work are based upon a tangible interaction between an employer or manager and a worker. In the platform economy this may no longer be very relevant.

In terms of responsibility, I note with interest that the introduction to the RSA’s new Future of Work Centre talks about seeking to “reimagine our social contract”. This contract is described as “that web of explicit and implicit rights and obligations that govern the way we work”, and one of the possible new principles underlying this contract is that “everyone is responsible for ensuring good work”.

I agree with the sentiment that it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that we all treat each other fairly and with respect at work. But it can take a great deal of courage to speak out against a prevailing culture that supports unacceptable behaviour and bad employment practices,  as the social media outcry about sexual harassment proves. ‘Everyone’ has traditionally had a more powerful voice as a collective unit. Everyone is accountable, yes, but the presence of a trade union can make a big contribution to protecting rights and promoting fairness.

When it comes to the future of work, our rights and responsibilities are clearly going to be informed by our values and attitudes. Which brings me to what the RSA article calls for – “a cultural shift” in the way we view low-skilled jobs.

I agree that it is  misguided to see all low-skilled jobs as “an unfortunate and temporary stop-gap”. Equating low skill with low value is erroneous. This was re-enforced by the analysis we did of calls to the Acas helpline from people on zero-hours and agency contracts. We noticed that many people who worked in care homes had ‘low commitment contracts’ but ‘high commitment attitudes’. In other words, the people who cared for clients in homes were often on insecure contracts but they had often worked for many years in their chosen profession and cared deeply about the job they did and what it meant. 

I am not sure if robots get organisational culture, or if they can be programmed to truly believe in the right values (or, more pertinently, if those doing the programming truly believe). If so, then we may be alright. Either way, it is  up to all of us to keep caring about good work and job quality.  I look forward to hearing more of what Matthew has to say about the balance between flexibility and fairness at the Acas National Conference on 10th October.  

Sir Brendan Paul Barber is chair of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service Council (ACAS). He is a former general secretary of the United Kingdom's Trades Union Congress; a post he held from June 2003 until his retirement at the end of 2012.

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