Decent jobs, fair pay – Is it really too much to ask?

Decent Jobs Week

Decent Jobs Week runs from 15 to 21 Dec, and starts with the release of The Decent Work Deficit, the latest TUC report highlighting the increasingly casualised – and often exploitative – working conditions experienced by millions. The Government needs to stop undermining the employment rights of hardworking people, and do more to create decent jobs, offering decent hours and decent pay.

The rise and rise of casualisation

The recession in 2008 led to lower levels of unemployment than many anticipated after the experience of economic downturns in the 80s and 90s. Instead, it fuelled an increase in insecure, low-paid and casual forms of work. Six years on, the recession long over, that trend is still growing. There are currently 1.7 million casualised workers in the UK – nearly 20% more than in 2008 – making up 6.5% of the national workforce. The precarious nature of employment in the UK labour market today is epitomised by the growing use of zero-hours contracts (1.4 million of them at last count), but also includes agency, short-hours and term-time contracts. And then there are the ranks of the self-employed, who make up a massive 15% of the UK workforce. Not so much well-heeled consultants as taxi drivers, carpenters and builders who can’t find the payroll jobs they really want. The latest assessment of earnings from self-employment is £207 a week, which is less than half that of employees. They also do not receive any sick or holiday pay, or pension contributions from an employer. According to TUC analysis, they account for 44 per cent of the net rise in employment since mid-2010. In effect, like other casualised workers they are paying for the recovery, while seeing none of its benefits. Paying for the recovery, seeing none of its benefits Some policy makers argue that so called ‘flexible employment’ is an attractive option – for those with children or elder care responsibilities, for example. And for a small minority, that may be so. But in the current economic climate, most simply have no choice. People doing more ‘flexible’ forms of work bear all the risk in the workplace. The use of ‘flexible’ workers allows employers to drive down costs and be more competitive: they employ people as and when they need them (effectively putting people on perpetual, unpaid call). At the same time, they are under no legal obligation to extend to them the same basic rights as payroll employees to fair treatment. Casual workers are in a perilous position to complain about exploitation at work when their job can be terminated at a moment’s notice, or their shifts cut on the whim of a manager they took to task. Redundancy pay? Forget it!

Government not helping

The fact is that the odds are heavily stacked against casualised workers, and the Government has been quietly complicit – and in some instances, outright deliberate – in undermining their employment rights: for example, introducing fees for employment tribunal claimants (effectively closing off legal recourse to most insecurely employed people – precisely those most likely to experience exploitation and least likely to be able to afford it); cuts in funding for all statutory enforcement agencies; and proposals to exclude self-employed workers from some H&S legislation – putting health and lives at risk. The rules on employment status are in urgent need of reform and modernisation. Rules on who qualifies for statutory employment rights have failed to keep pace with changes in the UK labour market. Much of UK employment law has remained wedded to the notion that a long run and stable employment relationship is the norm. The core workforce continues to enjoy the benefits of job security, protection from arbitrary treatment and other work-related benefits, including sick pay and pension entitlements. Those who do not conform to this norm are offered scant protection.

What needs to be done

There is an urgent need for the government and politicians of all persuasions to challenge precarious employment and to introduce a framework of policies designed to encourage the creation of decent jobs, offering decent hours and decent pay, and where dignity and respect are a given. At the TUC, we believe a starting point would be to ensure that all workers, regardless of their employment status benefit from the full range of employment protections. (The only exception should be those who are genuinely self-employed and running a business on their own account, and where in dispute, the onus should rest with the employer to convince an employment tribunal that an individual is genuinely self-employed). We also want to see: the rules on continuity of employment reformed to ensure casual workers who experience breaks in employment can still qualify for employment rights; the abolition of employment tribunal fees; and adequate funding returned to agencies responsible for tackling exploitation in the workplace. The government have been reaping the political headlines of recovery and lower unemployment for a while now. It’s time they gave some vital support to the people who are making it possible.

Decent Jobs Week runs nationwide from 15 – 21 December. Find out how you can get involved at decentjobsweek.org