The Gig is Up? TUC conference on insecure work

With growing concerns about the dramatic increase of insecure employment and the abuses of the ‘gig economy’, this week’s TUC conference was a welcome intervention.  According to the TUC, 1 in 10 workers are now affected by casualization and job insecurity, which invariably combine with low pay.   Increasing numbers are also ‘self-employed’ often against their wishes. The TUC  estimates that there are 1.7 million low paid self-employed.

Protecting this increasingly diverse and fragmented group of workers is a herculean task. The Tory government has commission the RSA’s Matthew Taylor to report on the current employment practices – this is expected very shortly, but as the conference understood, it’s only by electing a (more left wing) Labour government that employment laws could be changed and trade union rights restored. Labour’s plans for infrastructure spending and greater investment would, its argued,  lead to increased productivity through better jobs.  

Many of those attending the conference also had some excellent ideas about how new technology can be used to develop new ways for organising self-employed and agency workers, but short-term, front line, more immediate initiatives need to be combined with a greater awareness of the implications of major shifts in production and distribution. These developments, if more apparent in economies like the UK and the US are also universal developments, requiring new types of understanding and new strategies.

Mass trade unionism (UK membership reached its 13 million plus peak in the late 1970s) was associated with labour intensive/production line manufacturing, where it was often in the interests of employers to reach collective agreements and to standardise pay and working conditions. These types of arrangements – now referred to as ‘Fordism’, also predominated in other sectors of society. As a result, workers were provided with permanent and regular jobs, developing more collective occupational identities.  

As the twenty first century unfolds, developments in technology have resulted in the extensive automation of manufacturing and a much smaller ‘core’ workfare producing a greater output. Yet growing productivity and efficiency in manufacturing has not resulted in the expansion of highly skilled professional service sector employment, at least not to the extent that business theory had suggested –on the contrary, significant areas of this employment has been broken down into ‘para-professional’ work.

It’s no accident that as the size of the ‘core’ workforce has contracted, then so has the strength of the trade union movement – some estimate this will fall from the current 6 million to 3 million within a generation. Huge numbers of people who have become ‘surplus to production’ now depend on rather different types of work, providing ‘services’ for those more fully employed – like staffing bars, hotels, and restaurants, cleaning  houses, delivering  take away meals and dropping off on-line shopping products. Because of continued outsourcing and sub-contracting, many are no longer ‘employees’ in the traditional sense, sometimes not knowing who they are really working for, even who they are working with.

Yet, the TUC argues that ‘work is still the most important route out of poverty and to a better standard of living’ even though for many people, its own statistics show this is no longer the case. Now, rather than state benefits being associated with periods of unemployment, a new ‘working poor’ depends on state benefits to supplement full-time work. Despite the support for a universal basic, or ‘citizens’ income  increasing, this continues to by-pass the TUC (and the Labour Party).

Accepting the argument, that for many, work will no longer pay, will also enable a fuller discussion about the advantages of automating many jobs and reducing hours (as well as stress). It might be true that while some types of work can never be completely automated, as technology continues to race ahead, there are few jobs where automation cannot be extended. But while labour is so cheap and so plentiful however and paid work seen as the only route to salvation, this debate is less likely to happen.


Download the TUC’s  The gig is up

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