For Prospect, Tom Clark opened both meetings explaining why the “Great Jobs Agenda” was so timely. When he’d been learning economics, 20 years or so ago, all sorts of things were assumed to be true about the UK labour market that were true no longer. Sluggish growth, it was then assumed, would lead to a serious jobs shortfall, and yet today we had a full decade of miserable growth, which has left employment at a record high. As a result, the discussion had naturally shifted from the quantity of jobs on to the quality, where there were many pressing concerns. Who, a generation ago, would have believed that bosses could get away without awarding a pay rise to the average worker in 15 years? And who, back then, had any idea what a zero-hours contract was?
For the TUC, Frances O’Grady stressed the urgency of the debate about workplace quality at both conferences. Phoney self-employment was only one of the methods today being used to deny workers their basic rights; the supposed “flexibilities” enabled by online platforms was another. At the SNP conference, in particular, the Q&A session revealed the audience was much seized by the way in which the term “flexibility” was being abused. For O’Grady flexibility was important, but only where it was a real two-way street. She spoke about research the TUC was doing on allowing for more family friendly working, not least for fathers who sometimes lack the confidence to ask for any variation in standard hours, fearing this will make them look like they are not serious about their job.
O’Grady also stressed the inadequacy of relying on purely “right to request” type solutions for the problems of workplaces where exploitation was rampant. She honed in on the example of Sports Direct, where it had been reported a terrified worker had felt too intimidated to ask for time off, and so ended up giving birth on the toilet floor. In such companies, O’Grady insisted, it was simply no good to pretend that workers would have the confidence to deploy notional rights to request anything—and still less to assume that bullying managers would seriously entertain any requests made by their worker, as opposed to automatically saying No.
In Bournemouth, there was some difference on this last point with the new Deputy Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, who is also a former employment minister. While she agreed “rights to request” were not enough in every circumstance, she insisted that the policy—which she’d played a part in developing at the Business Department—had helped to change the culture where family friendly working was concerned. She also insisted that zero-hours contracts could, in very specific circumstances, benefit workers as well as employers, citing her own experience in working in McDonalds as a student—she had no obligation to turn up if she didn’t fancy a shift, which had suited her in the run-up to exams. She did, however, agree with O’Grady that there were other circumstances where full statutory rights—including the rights to organise through a union—were necessary. Non-compete clauses, which effectively required workers to keep time free without any assurance they would be paid, were one example of a practice that did need stamping out.
In both Glasgow and Bournemouth O’Grady pushed home the point that “zero-hours contracts” were increasingly a misnomer—the average worker on such contracts was doing 25 hours a week. A reasonable and balanced approach would be to review, over a reference period of a few months, how many hours somebody was actually working and mandate that they be provided with regular shifts equivalent to that. She was baffled that the government would not take that up.
In Glasgow, Hannah Bardell—who has held a run of economic briefs for the SNP at Westminster—was keen to stress the specifically Scottish dimensions of the employment map. There were, for example, corners of Scotland where youth unemployment was higher than the low UK-wide average, and there were many relevant policy areas in this terrain—not least on benefits—where power over policy was reserved to Westminster and Whitehall. Looking ahead to the big challenges that loomed for the promotion of good jobs, both in Scotland and across the UK, both Bardell and O’Grady agreed that one loomed larger than any other across the country: Brexit. Both feared there was a clear and present threat that the government could, perhaps unwittingly, push Britain over the cliff edge into a no-deal outcome. Some industries could make contingency plans, Bardell said, but there could be no moving of other export-reliant sectors, like the Scotch whisky industry and North Sea fishing.
With the support of the TUC, Prospect hosted a series of panel discussions at the 2017 Liberal Democrat and SNP Party Conferences on the Great Jobs Agenda.