Alarm bells continue to ring about the implications of (a hard) Brexit for UK skill levels, future growth and prosperity. By the end of 2016 there were 2.2 million working EU migrants -7% of the labour force. Most recently there’s been specific concern about the effect of Brexit on an already understaffed NHS. EU immigrants make up about 5% of NHS staff (10% of registered doctors and 4% of registered nurses).
Migrants from the original 14 EU member states are more likely to be in better-paid employment, requiring higher skill levels – such as the business and finance sectors. By comparison, despite significant representation in professional and managerial categories, later Eastern European migrants provide a regular supply of semi and unskilled labour. In the ‘hotels, restaurants, and accommodation’ sector they make up I in 8 of the workforce and in construction over 7%. According to one survey, (CIPD, Facing the future 2017) 40% of EU migrants could be considered ‘over-educated’ for the work they do, compared to 15% of UK nationals (evidence shows that, overall, EU migrants tend to be more highly qualified than UK workers).
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has given Brexit a socialist tweak, telling the BBC (23/07) that the “wholesale importation” of workers from Eastern and Central Europe has been used to undermine pay and working conditions particularly in industries like construction. CIPD report that one in seven employers consider EU nationals have lower expectations about pay and conditions, but they also regarded them as more productive.
It isn’t clear however, whether wages would rise if EU migration was curtailed. According to the CIPD study, a quarter of employers reported difficulties in recruiting UK born candidates for semi-skilled and unskilled posts. To ease shortages, employers could recruit from ‘underutilised’ groups like young people. Unemployment rates for young people are still double that generally – 1 in 8 of all 19-24 years olds are still NEET, but many UK employers have been reluctant to offer proper apprenticeships.
With new ‘flexible’ working arrangements in the 24/7 service sector, employers will also continue to recruit from groups not wanting to work on ‘standard’ contracts because of family and caring responsibilities (over 4 million part-time women workers, don’t want or can’t do full-time employment for example) and almost a million full time students currently work part time. It’s clear that this pool of labour is not yet exhausted.
Employers could also automate. While it is difficult to replace workers with machines in many low skilled ‘non-routine’ jobs like serving in restaurants or in-home care, many other jobs could be, however the CIPD survey found little concrete evidence of any plans to do this. Uncertainty about the post Brexit economic climate may be a factor, but the UK’s historically low rate of capital investment (compared with other countries) is probably more significant. In other words, for key sections of UK business a low-skilled, low-pay business model is the most preferred and a hard Brexit would result in a labour shortage, as much as a skills problem. Without a migrant ‘reserve army’ many employers may not be prepared to keep businesses running at all.
Election discussion about the economy, employment, and skills, largely avoided any reference to the debate about automation and its consequences for work. Even if it’s accepted that technological progress will eliminate jobs (though there are major differences of opinion about how many) it’s also generally argued that low-paid unskilled work will be replaced by new, more rewarding types of employment and that people should continue to be up-skilled to take advantage of these.
It’s certainly the case that previous periods of technological upheaval have not resulted in prolonged periods of mass unemployment, yet there has been a stream of accounts – admittedly mostly from the more liberal fringes of Silicon Valley – about the future implications of robotics and artificial intelligence for social cohesion, rising social inequality and much higher levels of unemployment.
The Queen’s speech reaffirmed government priorities “My ministers will work to ensure people have the skills they need for the high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future” but Labour has also continued to have an equally optimistic view –albeit emphasising the importance of reviving investment levels and replacing free-market forces with much greater degrees of state planning, better infrastructure, improved technical education and free university attendance.
Thirty-five years since Andre Gorz’s essay on the potential benefits of automation in the creation of ‘post-industrial’ socialism, which prioritises self-autonomous leisure rather than imposed work, Labour’s policies (whatever their other merits) continue to be based around the importance of full (time) employment, with the ‘bad’ jobs of the Tories being replaced by Labour’s better ones. In a week that sees the publication of Matthew Taylor’s report on employment practices, Gorz, still vilified by most of the traditional left, is at least worth revisiting.
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
Almost 1 in 4 of trade union members are employed in education. According to the ONS 1.47 million of a total union membership of 6.2 million are now drawn from this sector. With almost half (47.7%) of all employees belonging to a trade union, the education has probably become the most organised. (In manufacturing, union density is now below 1 in 5 and in construction, only 1 in 8)
The ONS provides interesting –but in many cases, slightly alarming data, about the current state of the UK trade union movement, which is now less than half the size of its 13 million 1979 peak. The level of membership decreased by 275 000 between 2015/16 alone, the largest overall fall since records begun.
- Just 32.5% of workers are trade union members (13.4% in the private sector , 52.7% of public)
- 4 out of 10 trade union members are over 50, but only 1 in 20 are between 18-24
- 4 out of 10 members can be classified as ‘professional’ workers. 43% have degrees
- Trade union density amongst female employees is now greater than it is for males
- Over a third of ‘middle earners’ (£500 – £999 a week) and 1 in 6 of employees earning over £1000 a week are in unions. Only I in 8 of those earning less than £250 a week are TU members
Trade union can’t and won’t ignore these changes, but at the same time they will recognise these are as much the result of longer-term structural trends across labour markets as they are the consequences of draconian anti- trade union legislation or government policies and develop new strategies accordingly.
That education workers now play a key role in the labour movement, provides both further impetus for greater organisational unity (despite the NUT/ATL merger at least 10 different unions operate in the sector, often in competition with each other), but also for creating more effective ways of working with student and parental bodies.
Latest figures from the ONS, show the employment rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 who were in work) at 74.6%, the joint highest since records began in 1971. The unemployment rate has also fallen to 4.7%, down from 5.1% for a year earlier. It has not been lower since June to August 1975. Yet in 1975, it was a very different economy with a very different labour market. The UK was the 5th or 6th biggest manufacturer in terms of total output (it’s now 9th) with 1 in 5 still working in the sector (it’s now less than 10%). Harold Wilson was prime minister and a referendum on EU membership recorded two-thirds support.
Then, some 17 million people (approaching 40% of the workforce) belonged to trade unions compared to around 6 million today. As Andrew Glynn and Bob Sutcliffe described in their influential Workers, Capitalism and the Profits Squeeze – organised labour had been able to use its power to steadily increase its returns at the expense of profits. Capital could only resolve this by attempting to increase prices but could not fully win back what it had lost in wage negotiations because of increased international competition. Nevertheless in 1975, inflation reached a post-war peak of more than 25%
Today the situation could not be more different. After approaching 65% of national income in the mid-1970s, the proportion of national income returns to labour is down to 55%. Alongside the fall in the wage share, there has been a general rise in the inequality of earnings. The most highly paid have taken an ever larger share. The average full time person in work would be paid more than £7,000 more than they actually are if wages had kept up with economic growth and if the best paid had not increased their wages at the expense of everyone else.
Even if economic growth may have climbed to 2% per annum, this has been the result of an increase in size of the labour force not increases in productivity, with firms increasingly dependent on constant supplies of foreign labour. As a result per capita (per worker) income has barely increased at all. Meanwhile, the profit share (operating surpluses as a percentage of national income) rose from 24 % in 1980 to 28% in 2011.
The declining fortunes for workers is not simply a reflection of repressive trade union legislation. It’s also the result of significant structural changes within the labour market -the continued decline of traditional manual employment, where trade unions were always strongest, but also the ‘hollowing out’ of many ‘middle’ occupations. These have been replaced by huge increases in low-paid work at the bottom end of the service sector, the growth of casualised labour (‘zero-hours’ employment is approaching 1 million) and of bogus ‘self-employment’ –all areas where it is extremely difficult, though not impossible, for trade unions to organise.
Whereas in the 1970s Labour politicians and many trade union bosses tried to sell ‘incomes policies’ as a way of controlling wage increases/inflation, today’s ‘precarious’ the labour market imposes its own discipline and as a result, as well calling for the repeal of anti-trade union laws, campaigners have demanded new types of state policies, for example, an increased minimum or ‘living’ wage and an end to ‘zero hours’. Demands for a Universal Basic or a ‘Citizens’ income to gain ground, which though accepted by Greens, continues to be largely ignored by Labour and union leaders.