As the cost-of-living crisis deepens and recoveries stall, this government runs the risk of appearing more distant than ever from the realities of working life in Britain today.
The idea that we must work more hours to make up for deep wage cuts simply does not add to the millions of families who cannot find affordable childcare or are already working some of the longest hours in Europe.
Attempts to attribute long-running productivity issues to an increase in home and hybrid work is an affront to the committed employees whose flexibility and adaptability have helped British businesses keep commerce going, and public services keep running through lockdown after lockdown. Prospect surveys show that two-thirds of them have not even been consulted about changes to their working arrangements, figures supported by similar surveys by CIPD.
The dropping of the long-promised employment law from the Queen’s Speech shows a complete lack of interest in expanding the choices and flexibility that a few of the entire workforce currently enjoy – millions of whom would have left their homes every day even at the height of the pandemic to feed, care for and protect us, who need to be They are able to combine work and family responsibilities just like everyone else.
The truth is that working families in Britain today are under unprecedented pressure and are responding as best they can. They are working harder than ever to make ends meet, to pay off their colleagues, clients, clients and employers, all while covering gaps in child care and support for the elderly. We urgently need a serious and inclusive national conversation about how policies can support them to thrive rather than just survive.
Politicians like Rachel Reeves and Lisa Nandy understand this: the debate about safe work is also about respect and pride, about the quality of family and community life, and about the identity and future of regions like the Midlands and Yorkshire where transport, warehousing and logistics are becoming as important as manufacturing.
But instead, we get cooking lessons from the government and proverbs about refrigerators and eating cheese. The astonishingly weak level of debate about action at the highest levels of politics adds to the general distrust and cynicism, leaving the door open to populist forces and simplistic solutions.
Rather than trying to turn back the clock, we need to recognize that all was not well in the world of work before the arrival of Covid-19. The pandemic and its fallout have accelerated, rather than created, these challenges.
A new poll by Opinium asks voters what they would like to fix in their current work life. The number one answer, across all age groups and voting intentions, and especially for those who voted Conservative in 2019 but will consider voting Labor next time, has been higher salary. This was followed by fewer working hours, more flexibility, job security, and the ability to leave work without having to worry about their job.
Insecurity is a major problem, with one in three workers “not very” or “not at all confident” that they will always be able to get a good job for the rest of their career. Only 14% are “very confident” they can. Not everyone will experience the horrible treatment that P&O workers endured, but many feel the system is stacked against them, no matter how much effort or how many hours they put in.
The debate about good work should be about the future, not the past. You have to take into account the seismic shifts in experiences and expectations that were already underway before the pandemic and that have been greatly accelerated by it. It must respond to the legitimate hopes and aspirations of people in their careers, their children and the places in which they live.
New digital technologies should make it easier to fit work practices into our complex lives rather than the other way around. Growth industries desperate for new talent must be the way out of the insecure, low-paid labor that large parts of our country have become so dependent on. Increased aspirations for a well-paying job should be the starting point for breaking out of the cycle of stagnant wages and flat productivity that has held back our economy for far too long.
The government can and must work out this malaise.
First, as everyone but government ministers and a handful of MPs has realized, we need an emergency budget to offset falling living standards and ensure that the burden of Covid, welfare and international cost pressures is shared fairly.
Then, an employment bill that would mean that every worker has a fair chance to find a decent balance between work and family life — and that every employer should give his needs and wants fair consideration — should be back on the agenda. Prospect will add provisions for the “right to disconnect,” so that “hybrid” and “flexible” work does not become the new euphemism for long hours, “always on” work cultures that we know are bad for health and well-being, bad for equality and diversity, and bad for productivity.
Finally, we need real work to achieve the high-wage, productive economy that the government claims to want – with high worker participation at its core. This means bringing together businesses, unions, councils and communities to develop and drive an industrial strategy that supports innovation, skills development, job creation, career progression and increased productivity in every part of the UK.
The future of work is central to the future of our country. If this government isn’t interested in having a serious debate about it, you shouldn’t be surprised if it is increasingly seen as irrelevant to the real struggles now occupying voters’ lives.
Andrew Pakes is Deputy Secretary General and Director of Research at Prospect Union.
Image credit: Bluebudgie