Full employment was once thought to be a pipe dream. But now with more people aged 16 to 64 in work than since records began in 1971, the UK has made near full employment a reality.
Still, this news is cold comfort for the millions of people in the country for whom work is not rewarding, either materially, socially or emotionally.
It is instead for them a life of insecurity, of indignity and – for 3.8m people according to the latest figures — it is in fact a life of poverty.
Something in Britain’s modern world of work — where we’re working longer hours than ever before while our productivity lags hopelessly behind — has gone terribly wrong.
And Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), is determined to find out.
Taylor, a former policy adviser, was appointed by the government last year to lead a review into modern employment practices, including zero-hours contracts and other forms of insecure work, which will be published in June right after the general election.
The review was announced after bad UK bosses were rocked by scandal after scandal – most notably the mistreatment and underpayment of workers at Sport Direct, brought to light by Unite last year, as well as workers in the ‘gig economy’ such as Uber drivers and Deliveroo riders, whose supposedly flexible jobs are often in reality only flexible for their disembodied phone app employers.
Taylor will this evening (May 9) give a speech at the RSA, where he’ll hint at some of his review’s preliminary findings.
He will say, “For most of us work is one of the most important things in our life. We spend a lot of our time doing it. It’s how we support ourselves and our families. It’s often where we forge strong friendships and even meet partners.
“Over recent decades, government work policy has focused primarily on getting people into jobs with, as current record employment levels attest, considerable success.
“Yet persistent scandals of bad working conditions, poor legal safeguards and job insecurity suggest that bad work is all too common. We need, therefore, to talk about quality of work and not just quantity.”
‘Bad work is unacceptable’
The RSA commissioned a poll published today (May 9) of 2,000 people which found that fewer than one in ten people thought “all work is fair and decent”. But a strong majority – 67 per cent – believed that it was actually possible to make all work fair and decent. An an even stronger majority, nearly 75 per cent, believed more should be done to improve the quality of work.
Taylor outlined five reasons that a wholesale commitment to decent, quality work is absolutely critical now — in-work poverty; health and wellbeing; productivity; the impact of automation; and to foster habits of active citizenship.
“I think bad work is unacceptable when so many people in work are in poverty,” Taylor told the BBC today. “Bad work is clearly bad for our health and well-being, it leads to people dropping out of work.
“Bad work is bad for productivity, so it’s bad for our economy.
“Bad work just doesn’t fit 2017,” he added. “We want a world of engaged citizens, part of our communities.
“How can it be right that those same citizens who go to work for half their lives, don’t get listened to, don’t get involved, don’t get engaged?”
Stronger trade unions
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady welcomed the RSA’s work in promoting decent work for all.
“This is a much-needed initiative,” she said. “Everyone deserves a decent job. But 1 in 10 people now find themselves in insecure work – often on poverty pay and without basic rights. Employment law hasn’t kept pace with how work has changed.
“That’s why the rules that protect working people need dragging into the 21st century,” she added. “But the real game-changer is giving workers a proper say in how their workplace runs. We need more support for workers to form and join unions and challenge unfair conditions.”
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner argreed, arguing that the path to decent work for all lay in legislative action and a stronger voice for workers through stronger trade unions.
“From exploitative zero and short hours contracts to bogus self-employment, the world of work has become increasingly insecure as bad bosses seek out ever more creative ways of exploiting workers to boost profits and dodge their responsibilities,” he said.
“With a shocking 3.8m people experiencing in-work poverty it’s high time that work in this country paid and the misery of insecure work was eradicated. An incoming government must heed the growing chorus of concern by banning zero hours contracts, strengthening work place rights and promoting strong trade unions and collective bargaining as part of a package for decent well paid work.”
“With an alarming 90 per cent of people feeling that work is not fair and decent, business and government in this country needs to take a serious look at themselves,” Turner added. “Small wonder when millions have gone without a pay rise worth the name for nearly a decade.
“This loss of faith in a cornerstone of life, the experience that work does not pay, fuels wider social discontent. When we see nurses joining other working people in the foodbank queue, there is something gone very wrong in the world’s sixth biggest economy.”
In the run-up to Taylor’s lecture tonight, the RSA has been running a social media initiative called #GoodWorkIs. Join the conversation by using your social media channels to say what good work means to you, using the hashtag #GoodWorkIs.
And you can tune in live to Taylor’s speech tonight from 6pm on YouTube here.