Photo: A. Aleksandravicius
Why insecurity at work doesn’t need to be the new normal
New research we’ve published today, commissioned from the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, shows that insecure work isn’t inevitable.
The rise and rise of insecure work in the UK is sometimes treated as a natural consequence of technological and social change. The development of online platforms has made it easier for employers to parcel up work into ever smaller pieces in order to reduce costs (and increased the ease for would- be entrepreneurs of setting up on their own), and we’re told that people value the limited flexibility this brings. With this argument often comes the idea that we should embrace new forms of employment relationship – whether gig working, self-employment or zero hours contracts and agency work– despite the fact that these involve significant transfers of risk from employers to those working for them.
If insecure work is inevitable, we’d expect to see similar trends across advanced economies. After all, Britain is behind the curve on its adoption of new technologies (see the graph at the bottom here, which shows how we’re laggards in terms of ‘robotisation’). So we asked NIESR to research trends in the growth of insecure work across Europe, to see how typical the UK’s experience of a rise in insecurity at work since the recession actually is.
In one area we’re a clear outlier. The striking rise in the number of people in self-employment since the recession is the highest anywhere in the E.U. It’s hard to think that a tax regime that gives employers a significant advantage for employing people on this basis doesn’t have something to do with this.
Growth in total self-employment between 2008 and 2015 (EU28)
Source: European Labour Force Survey (2008 and 2015). Age Class: From 20-64 years
The growth in temporary forms of work while less striking is still the third highest within the EU (though it’s important to note that the UK still has one of the lowest overall levels of temporary work). But what really stands out here is how other major European nations have introduced policy innovations in response to labour market trends in order provide workers in these jobs with more security. To take just a couple of examples:
- In France, workers can only be on a fixed-term contract for 18 months, and Germany has introduced a maximum hiring period of 18 months for temporary agency workers.
- Zero-hours contracts do not exist in many EU countries and are strongly regulated in others (e.g. Netherlands, Italy, Germany), but only lightly regulated in the UK. In the Netherlands, for example, employers are required to pay for 3 hours per shift, and to provide regular hours when the worker reaches a certain number of weekly hours over a given period.
And while it’s often claimed that a lack of security is the price UK workers pay for our record employment rates, it’s striking that Germany has reduced the number of people in both self-employment and temporary work, while seeing its employment growth outpace that of the UK.
Growth in total employment between 2008 and 2015 (EU28)
Source: European Labour Force Survey (2008 2015). Age Class: From 20-64 years
The report shows that policy matters – and that how governments choose to react to attempts by employers to minimise their costs can make a real difference to the experience of work.
The election provides a perfect opportunity for politicians of all parties to show that the UK can catch up in terms of its efforts to provide better quality jobs. So the TUC is calling for all parties to commit in their manifestos to:
- Ban zero-hours contracts: people working regular hours should have a right to a guaranteed-hours contract.
- Give people on variable-hours contracts a right to overtime pay for hours outside of their contracts.
- Give all workers to have a right to a written statement of terms, conditions and working hours, from day one.
- Ensure everyone at work to get the same rights as an employee, unless the employer can show that they are genuinely self-employed.
- Guarantee agency workers the going rate for the job, on an equal basis with directly-employed workers.