Work does not pay

Paul Nowak find the Tories’ Good Work plan is all warm words and sticking plasters

Amidst the continuing Brexit omnishambles, you might not have noticed that at the end of last year the government published its Good Work plan, which Business Secretary Greg Clark claimed was “a significant milestone…to deliver the largest upgrade in workers’ rights in over a generation”. A few weeks later the Prime Minister invited trade unionists into Downing Street for the first time in over two years to discuss Brexit, and in particular to try and allay union fears about what the government’s approach to Brexit would mean for employment rights now and into the future.

On the face of it, both of these developments would suggest the government has belatedly woken up to the fact that for far too many people work simply is not working. But scratch beneath the surface, and it’s clear that the government is more interested in warm words than concrete action to make Britain’s workplaces fairer.

Let’s start with the Good Work plan. Many of the proposals announced by the government in December flow from Matthew Taylor’s review of modern employment practices. This review was commissioned by the government over 2 ½ years ago, with Taylor reporting in July 2017. In all that time we’ve had plenty of rhetoric from government but precious little action. Indeed, many of the proposals announced by the government in December won’t actually take effect until April 2020, more than 3 ½ years after the Prime Minister promised urgent action to help the ‘just about managing’.

But the real issue with the Good Work plan isn’t just that it has been so long coming to fruition, but that it is also a completely inadequate response to the huge challenges facing working people in Britain today.

The government likes to trumpet the fact that employment in the UK is at a record high. But it’s clear this headline statistic masks a multitude of problems. One in nine UK workers now work in a precarious job, and in fact two-thirds of the new jobs created in the last decade fall into this category. Low pay and insecure work have become the default in huge parts of sectors like hospitality and private social care. Workers are still worse off in real terms than they were before the financial crash more than a decade ago. For far too many people, work simply does not pay. Seven in ten of the children living in poverty in this country have at least one parent who works.

The problems in our labour market are not just restricted to those in the lowest paid employment. Casualisation has taken hold in universities and airlines as well as distribution centres. There is a continuing sense of a disconnect between Britain’s boardroom elite and their workforces – with a recent Business Select Committee report describing top executive pay in the UK as ‘eye watering and unjustified’.

In the face of all these challenges and more – including growing issues around stress and mental health at work – the Taylor review and the Good Work plan offer sticking plaster solutions. That’s not to say that there aren’t important and positive elements in both. For example, plans to close the so-called ‘Swedish derogation’ loophole that allows employers to exploit agency workers represent a major victory for trade unions after years of campaigning.

But overall, the reforms are a missed opportunity to shift the balance of power in insecure workplaces, illustrated by the fact not one of the 51 proposals government agreed to take forward from the Taylor review sets out what can be done to help workers enforce their rights through an independent trade union. Not one proposal mentions collective bargaining. All this despite the fact that study after study shows that workers in unionised workplaces benefit from higher pay, better pensions, safer working conditions, better access to family friendly working and a whole host of benefits.

This speaks directly to why unions are so wary about the government’s ‘commitments’ to protect employment rights following Brexit.

There are no binding guarantees in the deal that UK workers’ rights will fully keep pace with workers in Europe. Whatever the PM says today about new domestic laws on employment rights is meaningless – without a Brexit deal that binds future UK governments to maintain minimum European standards, future generations could find their rights disappear.

With the PM herself on a de facto fixed-term contract, and a host of hard-right Brexiteers looking to succeed her, it’s perhaps not surprising that unions are not convinced that employment rights are safe in Conservative hands. This scepticism is reinforced by the lived experience of the last nine years of Conservative-led government. The doubling of qualifying periods for unfair dismissal; the introduction of employment tribunal fees which priced thousands of people out of workplace justice; and the Trade Union Act, designed to deliberately weaken and undermine trade unions, is not a track record to inspire confidence.

We need a New Deal for working people in the UK. One built not just on individual rights at work, but the ability for workers to enforce their rights through strong, independent trade unions. That would be good for workers, but there is a growing recognition – even from surprising quarters like the OECD – that this would be good for business and UK PLC as well.

Paul Nowak

Paul Nowak is deputy General Secretary of the TUC.