- Created: Tuesday, 05 February 2019 17:25
- Written by Tom Vickers
Resistance by low-paid and precarious workers has forced working conditions onto the political agenda – from couriers with Deliveroo and UberEats, to hospitality workers employed by McDonalds, Wetherspoons, and TGI Fridays, to private hire drivers with Uber, a series of high profile strikes have taken place in recent years. Forced to at least acknowledge the issue, in December 2018 the government published a Good Work Plan, claiming to ‘not only maintain workers’ rights as the UK leaves the EU, but enhance them’. Unsurprisingly, the Plan offers low-paid and precarious workers nothing of substance. Serious action to improve pay and condition would threaten the profits of companies that rely on super-exploited labour. For real solutions workers can only rely on their own independent action.
The Good Work Plan is short on details, running to only 68 pages. Far from proposing a major change to labour relations, it brazenly celebrates the ‘flexible labour market’ that has made work precarious for so many, while pretending that flexibility only disadvantages workers where ‘a minority of employers abuse the current system’. It promotes the idea that good work ‘is in the interests of all businesses’, ignoring the reliance of significant sectors of Britain’s economy on low-paid, ‘disposable’ labour. The plan promises a new National Retraining Scheme that focuses on jobs under threat of automation, to support ‘people to progress in work, redirect their careers and secure the high-paid, high-skilled jobs of the future’, but this offers nothing to many workers who see no prospect of such jobs.
Average hours worked per week have been falling in formal terms since the 1990s, yet at the same time work has extended informally to more and more of our waking hours, for example where workers are required to make themselves available, with little or no pay, without knowing if they will be called in, and through expectations to answer emails or engage in work-related training outside of work hours. The Good Work Plan claims it will achieve more predictable hours, which would be welcome, but the Plan only proposes: ‘to give all workers the right to request a more stable contract’, and only after 26 weeks’ employment on a zero- or short-hours contract. This implies that employers will retain a ‘right’ to say no to the request and creates an additional incentive for employers to hire and fire within a 26-week period. It does nothing for casualised workers who don’t have a contract. Similarly, the Plan’s proposal to increase the minimum period denoting a ‘break in continuous service’, from one week to four weeks, might simply incentivise employers to wait longer before rehiring intermittent workers in order to limit rights that depend on length of service.
Other aspects of the Plan, such as promises to remove an opt-out from equal pay for agency workers, and to require all employers to give employees and workers a statement of their rights on their first day, will mean nothing if they are not effectively enforced. Currently Britain and the north of Ireland have among the weakest labour inspectorates in Europe, with less than 0.4 inspectors for every 10,000 workers - less than half the minimum recommended by the International Labour Organisation. Labour’s record is no better: at the end of the last Labour government there were 93 compliance officers tasked with enforcing the National Minimum Wage and 25 inspectors for the Gangmasters Licencing Authority, compared to 7,500 staff in local teams enforcing immigration controls. Laughably, the Plan refers to a promise to increase the number of inspectors by just five, as though this makes any difference in relation to an employed workforce of 32.4 million. It should be remembered that the prohibitive fees imposed by the government in 2013, as a barrier to employment tribunals, were overturned only because of a successful legal action by Unison. There is no reason to trust any of the government’s promises; only workers themselves can be relied on to enforce workers’ rights.
One significant cause of worsening conditions is the intensification of work. Marx points to the ‘great importance’ of the ‘rapidity and intensity’ of labour, which increased as limits on the length of the working day were established, such that the pace of work:
‘imposes on the workman increased expenditure of labour in a given time, heightened tension of labour-power, and closer filling up of the pores of the working day... This condensation of a greater mass of labour into a given period thenceforward counts for what it really is, a greater quantity of labour... The denser hour of the ten hours’ working day contains more labour, ie expended labour-power, than the more porous hour of the twelve hours’ working day’ (Capital Vol.1 Ch.15 S.3)
Workers were expected to work increasingly hard during the 1990s, and this intensification of work accelerated again between 2006 and 2012, particularly for women working full time. The Skills and Employment Survey found that in 2017, 46% of Britain’s employed workforce reported their jobs required them to work ‘very hard’, compared to 32% in 1992. The proportion of workers who said they are exhausted by the time they leave work increased between 2012 and 2017, to around 47% of men and 55% of women. The authors of the survey argue that work intensification has been driven by new technologies that have made it easier to schedule tasks without gaps, filling up every minute of the working day, reducing opportunities for rest, and accelerating workflows. These conditions are ruining people’s health. Workers in Britain and the north of Ireland take a total of 12.5 million days off work due to illness every year, with excessive workloads and resulting stress and strain a significant contributing factor. These outcomes are not the inevitable consequence of technological improvements, but result from a capitalist organisation of work that prioritises profits above all else.
The Good Work Plan claims to support workers’ autonomy, but at the same time the government are making workers increasingly dependent on waged labour, with austerity and racist immigration controls leaving many workers little alternative to accepting whatever work is on offer, however low the pay and however poor the conditions. As long as there are people desperate for work, there will be employers willing to take advantage. Unsurprisingly, the government’s Plan makes no suggestion that it will lift the restrictions on trade unions that have been imposed since the 1970s. In place of rights to independent organisation, the plan focuses on ‘information and consultation arrangements’, in which employers will continue to hold the real power. Real ‘good work’ for the majority of the working class can only be achieved through a struggle for workers’ control and economic democracy: in other words, socialism. Every struggle by workers to improve their pay and conditions must be supported.