Graft, grief and the way ahead

Britons up and down the country are in precarious situations when it comes to work—and it's not down to the pandemic

October 04, 2021
© Sipa/Shutterstock
© Sipa/Shutterstock

If the last 18 months have taught us anything, it is what it feels like to be exposed. When the virus hit, we suddenly discovered that we could no longer bank on all the ordinary assumptions—whether about our health, our children’s education or our jobs.

For a large part of the British workforce, however, such precarity is not the product of a passing pandemic emergency, but rather a permanent condition. A gig economy in which units of labour can be traded as if they were units of electricity heightens the vulnerability to all sorts of shocks, but the problems go far deeper into our economy than that. 

Speaking to women in a vast and growing sector—social care—Madeleine Bunting lays bare the overlapping ways in which unreliable shifts render workers’ finances, mental health and family lives desperately fragile. Their words about a punishing workplace culture, capricious managers and the stubborn inflexibility of the expectation that life can always be put on hold for work—even in the face of bereavement—make the case for reform more powerfully than any policy pamphlet. So, too, does our interview with former Bradford warehouse worker James, who experienced many of the same problems in a very different corner of the labour market.

But if you want to put things right, heeding the stories of the workers directly affected can only be a first—if indispensable—step. We also need hard facts, usefully summed up on an infographic that reveals which workers are “contractually exposed,” and nails a cast-iron link with low-pay, which means that it falls to those who can least afford it to budget most for volatile wages. Beyond that, we need specific ideas for reform and a broad coalition, including politicians of different stripes and employers who can point the way to a better future, all of which are found within these pages.

The government’s welcome signal in September that it would extend the right to request flexible working to day one in post must open up a wider debate. From a thoughtful Conservative point of view, Greg Clark, the secretary of state who launched the Taylor Review on working practices, hails the remarkable success of the furlough scheme in keeping the UK employment rate so high, but also spots a post-Brexit opportunity to look at the wage floor, and calls for an early Employment Bill, something the government promised but since seems to have forgotten about.

The JRF’s Katie Schmuecker hammers home the case for that Bill, and lays out specific proposals—such as “default” flexible working and entitlement to regular shifts—that could begin to reset the power imbalance in many workplaces, and foster dignity, security and wellbeing along the way. The UK is not the only country facing these problems, and the reforms being tried elsewhere—from Oregon to Ireland—encourages hope that we can fix them too. Labour’s Angela Rayner—who knows something about insecure work, having been a zero-hours carer herself in the days before “zero-hours” was a phrase—makes additional promises about levelling working rights across different categories of staff. Meanwhile, Sarah Collins reports on one giant employer—Unilever—with an innovative scheme to guarantee flexi-time workers a retainer. This is helping the firm to keep the skills that they need, and proving that security and flexibility don’t have to be a zero-sum grudge match between staff and workers. To close things off, journalist James Bloodworth looks back at his months undercover in care homes and warehouses, and reflects on the gnawing anxiety in many such workplaces, and the hope that this extraordinary post-lockdown moment gives us to banish it for good.