Tom Watson writes for Unions21 on Fair Work
The next Deputy leader of the Labour Party must work to ensure the party speaks to a wider range of people in work and better demonstrate it genuinely understands their pressures, experiences and hopes. No-one expects us to have all the answers, but we need ongoing conversations with working people and to show we can solve some of these problems together.
There’s so much riding on this. Greater fairness at work is a crucial building block for a fairer society. Our identity, self-esteem, finances, health and happiness are often shaped by what happens to us at work. The Tories have taken a one-dimensional political approach to employment largely centred on the quantity of private sector jobs. They’ve shown little regard to the pay people take home, the hours they work, job security, the skills developed or required and future prospects across the whole of the labour market. Worse still, government policies and crude cuts have actively contributed to the deterioration of work creating an increasing social and economic price later on.
What current ministers don’t appreciate is that to increase the quality of jobs, we need industrial policy. Alongside this we need more ambitious employment standards and to cultivate a climate where unions and employers work together on shared challenges. The Tories are desperate to re-run the battles of yesteryear, while giving no regard to the role trade unions play in the real world improving jobs, raising skills and helping solve problems.
There’s much to do. We need a Deputy Leader who can share the experiences across the movement and help join some dots. Councils in England eyeing up devolution should be listening and learning to the many experiences from Wales and Scotland that will improve the quality of work. Progressive and thoughtful procurement policies can help lift standards, but they need to be shared and understood by Labour councillors and others in the public, private and third sectors. The government might not be interested in the collective work by Labour councils, unions and employers in Salford and Derby to lift employment standards – but I am.
The workforce are the only people with internal expertise and an interest in the flourishing of the firm. A third of the seats on boards should be elected by the workforce. A stronger worker voice is critical to improving work. A respected presence on remuneration committees should just be the start of greater participation and democracy at work. Increasing collective bargaining is what will ensure Britain gets a pay rise. Real wages are well behind where they were at the time of the financial crash and the sacrifices of workers since 2008 need to be rewarded. That is why I personally cannot support the continued 1% cap in public sector pay. As a former trade union official, I know as well as you do that pay rates are only one side of the equation. Whether you’re a teacher or a care worker, if employers are demanding more unpaid overtime then hourly pay rates tumble regardless of what is negotiated.
The erosion of ‘time-off’ harms productivity as well as wellbeing. One of the consequences of job insecurity is the perception of the need to be the first and last one in work. This does none of us any favours in the long term and if you’ve got any caring responsibilities it only adds to the pressure. It isn’t just those on zero hours contracts who are on ‘standby’. The growing expectancy that colleagues to answer emails out of the hours which intrudes on vital time off. Unlike UK productivity, workplace stress is rising sharply. If people don’t get a break then that takes its toll on many aspects of life and work. Sadly it’s often family that pays the price.
We need a campaign to defend Further Education and what it offers for the sake of our future economy as well as for students and working people. Investment in skills and training is going to matter more than ever. Given how many people are going to be expected to change careers throughout their working lives, the throttling of F.E. is one of the most short-sighted false economies of all from this government. As people are expected to retire later it’s vital we ensure older workers are invested in and not discriminated against when training opportunities are determined and policy decisions are made. Increasingly precarious employment discourages investment in training and skills from all sides.
Thankfully we don’t need to wait for the next general election to improve the world of work. If I become Labour’s next Deputy Leader I will work with you and your unions from day one to make a difference working with and for working people. Our solidarity matters more than ever.