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The future of work and the cost-of-living crisis

As the cost-of-living crisis bites and the recovery stalls, this Government is in danger of looking ever more out-of-touch with the realities of working life in Britain today.

The idea that we should work more hours to make up for deep real terms cuts in pay simply doesn’t add up for millions of families who can’t find affordable childcare or are already working some of the longest hours in Europe.

Attempts to attribute long-standing productivity problems to increased home- and hybrid-working are an insult to committed employees whose flexibility and adaptability helped British businesses continue to trade and public services continue to function through lockdown after lockdown. Prospect’s own polling shows two thirds of them haven’t even been consulted about changes to their working arrangements, figures backed up in similar surveys by the CIPD.

Dropping the long-promised Employment Bill from the Queen’s Speech shows a total lack of interest in extending the choices and flexibility currently enjoyed by a few to the entire workforce – millions of whom were leaving their homes each day even at the height of the pandemic to feed, care for and protect the rest of us, and who need to be able to combine work with family responsibilities just as much as anyone else.

The truth is that Britain’s working families are today under unprecedented pressure and are responding as best they can. They are working harder than ever to make ends meet, deliver for their colleagues, customers, clients and employers, all while covering gaps in childcare and support for the elderly. We urgently need a serious and inclusive national conversation about how policy can support them to thrive rather than simply survive.

Politicians like Rachel Reeves and Lisa Nandy get this: the debate about secure work is also about respect and pride, about the quality of family and community life, and about the identity and future of regions like the Midlands and Yorkshire where transport, warehousing and logistics are becoming as important as manufacturing industry.

But instead from the Government we are getting condescending cooking lessons and parables about fridges and eating cheese. The astonishingly poor level of discussion about work at the highest levels of politics adds to public mistrust and cynicism, leaving the door open to populist forces and simplistic solutions.

Instead of trying to turn the clock back, we need to recognise that all was not well in the world of work before Covid-19 arrived. The pandemic and its repercussions have accelerated rather than created these challenges.

New polling by Opinium asked voters what they would like to fix about their current working lives. The top answer, across all age groups and voting intentions, and particularly for those who voted Conservative in 2019 but would consider voting Labour next time, was a higher salary. This was followed by fewer working hours, more flexibility, job security, and being able to switch off from work without having to worry about their job.

Insecurity is a major issue, with one in three workers “not very” or “not at all confident” that they will always be able to get a good job for the rest of their careers. Only 14% are “very confident” that they will be able to. Not everyone will experience the awful treatment P&O workers endured, but many feel the system is stacked against them, no matter how much effort or how many hours they put in.

The debate around good work must be about the future, not the past. It needs to reckon with the seismic shifts in experiences and expectations that were already underway before the pandemic and that have been dramatically accelerated by it. And it needs to respond to the legitimate hopes and ambitions people have for their careers, their children, and the places in which they live.

New digital technologies should be making it easier to fit working practices around our complex lives instead of the other way around. Growth industries that desperately need new talent should be the route out of insecure and low-paid employment that large parts of our country have become too reliant on. Rising aspirations for a rewarding career should be the starting point for breaking out of the cycle of stagnating wages and flatlining productivity which have held back our economy for too long.

The Government can and must act to break out of this malaise.

Firstly, as everyone but government ministers and a handful of MPs have now recognised, we need an Emergency Budget to offset falling living standards and ensure the burden of Covid, social care and international cost pressures are fairly shared.

Next, an Employment Bill that means every worker has a fair chance to find a decent balance between work and family life – and every employer has to give their needs and wishes fair consideration – needs to be back on the agenda. Prospect would add provisions for a ‘Right To Disconnect’, so that “hybrid” and “flexible” working doesn’t become a new euphemism for long hours, “always-on” working cultures that we know are bad for health and wellbeing, bad for equality and diversity, and bad for productivity.

Finally, we need real action to bring about the high-wage, high-productivity economy the Government claims to want – with high worker involvement at its core. That means bringing together businesses, trade unions, councils and local communities to develop and take forward an industrial strategy that supports innovation, skills development, job creation, career progression and rising productivity in every part of the UK.

The future of work is central to the future of our country. If this government isn’t interested in a serious discussion about it, it shouldn’t be surprised if it is regarded as increasingly irrelevant to the real struggles now occupying voters’ lives.

Andrew Pakes is Deputy General Secretary and Research Director at Prospect Union.

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