Something is seriously awry in the world of work

Something is seriously awry in the world of work

The California Senate passed a law last week requiring platforms such as Uber and Lyft to treat their drivers as employees. Efforts in legislatures and courts in other states and countries are under way to achieve the same result. In the UK, a report by Robert Skidelsky, commissioned by Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, recommended a government job guarantee and a 35-hour week in the public sector as a lever for improving conditions in private sector employment. It is widely recognised that something is fundamentally awry with the world of work. Some people are well-paid — too well-paid, even — and have intrinsically rewarding work, yet have to work long hours with never-off email. Others have too-long hours in badly paid casualised work, not just on digital platforms and in their warehouses but also in shops and fast food outlets, as cleaners and minicab drivers, and in some “white collar” sectors such as the media. Yet others have too little work, or short-term contracts. Then there is the looming insecurity posed by automation.Technology, deregulation, the decline of unions, and the profound reshaping of business all lie behind this unsatisfactory state of affairs. And it seems inevitable that policymakers will respond, given that the provision of some minimum economic security is at the core of the modern state.One challenge for policy is the absence of the statistics that would paint a detailed portrait of the modern labour market. In the UK, the number of people on zero-hours contracts and the number describing themselves as agency workers have both increased substantially during the past decade, although they amount together to about 6 per cent of the workforce in employment. Self-employment accounts for a further 15 per cent of the total. However, it is not clear that all those working via digital platforms or with agencies would record themselves in the categories captured by the statistics. Nor do we know how many people have second jobs, or are working more or fewer hours than they would like, or how this affects younger people.It is probably safe to say at least one-quarter of the workforce is not in a traditional full-time and/or permanent job with an employer, and the proportion could be higher among younger age groups. The challenge is that so much government social policy — and so much collective organisation through unions — is delivered through the traditional “job”. Although it has been clear for more than 20 years that the social means of giving people enough economic security need to change, what we have had instead is states and businesses trying to pass the responsibility to each other — with individual workers caught in the middle.What’s more, many governments have been increasing the reliance they place on conventional employment contracts for social policy delivery, such as limits on hours worked, health coverage, welfare benefits and so on. While unionisation has declined in many countries, unions for the most part have equally remained focused on the status of the “job” in their campaigning — hence the drive in California and elsewhere to have non-standard jobs legally deemed to be standard jobs. Lord Skidelsky is right to argue that a public sector job and conditions guarantee can shape private sector practice by improving workers’ labour market options. However, the real need is for some institutional innovation. This could come from unions, seeking to enhance the bargaining power of gig workers. It could involve new forms of collective action, such as the sharing of salary information among Microsoft employees in a private Facebook group. Change will come: the world of work is not working for too many people. But it will not take the shape of a return to the past.The writer is Bennett Professor of Public Policy at the University of Cambridge


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