Is work ‘fair and decent’? That’s not how the voters see it

The head of the government’s review into zero-hours contracts and the less secure world of work has said that too many businesses still allow “bad work” to flourish.

Ahead of a speech on Tuesday evening, Matthew Taylor told the BBC that workers should be “engaged” by employers and feel more in control of how they work.

“I think some business leaders understand completely the importance of good work and its link to productivity, but, as always, we have a long tail of businesses where there doesn’t seem to be that understanding,” he told me.

Mr Taylor said that he was “shocked” at a new poll which suggests only 1-in-10 believe that all work is “fair and decent”.

In-work poverty

Mr Taylor argued that it was “unacceptable” that so many people in work were classed as below the official poverty line.

A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the number of people defined as suffering “in-work poverty” had risen by 1.1 million since 2010, to 3.8 million.

Although overall poverty is down, the report said that high housing costs, low wage growth and cuts to benefits meant that more people were officially classed as below the poverty line (an income of 60% of median earnings) despite being in work.

Less secure work in the “gig-economy” is also seen as a challenge to employment standards.

Quality of work

Companies like Deliveroo and Uber have been criticised for controversial workplace practices, though many say that the companies offer good, flexible alternatives to 9-5 work and a better deal for consumers.

“I think bad work is unacceptable when so many people in work are in poverty,” Mr Taylor told me.

“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.

“If we’re going to introduce technology – robots, artificial intelligence – we need to do that in a way which thinks about the quality of people’s work experience.

“Bad work just doesn’t fit 2017. 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?”

Long journey

Mr Taylor, who is head of the Royal Society for the Encouragements of the Arts (the RSA), said the new poll findings showed that the public were not convinced that all work was of the right quality.

The RSA commissioned Populus to question more than 2,000 people.

Fewer than 1-in-10 thought that “all work was fair and decent”.

And nearly 75% said that more should be done to improve the quality of work.

“Three quarters of people think that making work better should be a national priority,” Mr Taylor said.

“It shows that nearly as many people think it is perfectly possible for all jobs to be fair and to be decent but actually, shockingly, only 1-in-10 think that is currently the state of affairs.

“So the public wants change, believes change is possible, but thinks we have got a long journey to go on.”

New norm

As I wrote yesterday, the changing world of work is rising up the political agenda.

Theresa May made “an economy that works for everyone” the cornerstone of her “offer” to the voters after she became Prime Minister.

The government has said that introducing the National Living Wage and lifting tax thresholds (the point at which we start paying tax on our income) has helped many poorer people in work.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have criticised the government for letting the problem of the “quality” of work become so acute.

Labour has suggested it will ban zero-hours contracts and the Lib Dems have said that more transparency around what people are paid will help tackle the gap between higher and lower earners.

Mr Taylor said his review, which will be delivered to Number 10 shortly after the election whoever becomes Prime Minister, will call for a mix of new tax rules and workplace regulations as well as the promotion of a “new norm” around how businesses treat their employees.

“There is an old fashioned view in some parts of business that good work is somehow anti-competitive – it isn’t,” Mr Taylor said.

“If you get people to work better, then they will be more productive and be better for your business.

“That is an argument we’ve still got to win.”

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Economy, General