Setting out an agenda for fixing Britain’s broken workplaces

The Smith Institute’s new report ‘Making Work Better’, published today, sets out an alternative agenda for a new government to tackle Britain’s poor performing workplaces, which are holding back the recovery and costing the nation billions in lost income and in-work benefits. The 100-page report by Ed Sweeney, former Acas chair, marks the beginning of a pre-election push by Labour to address the concerns of Britain’s 30m workers.

office workplace

The report (the product of a nine month inquiry) examines the good and bad in Britain’s workplaces. It shows that although unemployment has fallen the number of low paid and insecure jobs has risen, especially for women. A significant minority of employees also suffer from poor management and are over-worked and ignored, which partly reflects the absence of unions and the loss of meaningful voice at work – especially in the private sector. For too many workers, their talent, skills and potential also go unrealised, leaving them unfulfilled and frustrated.

These concerns are not confined to employees and employers. They affect our national productivity, which continues to lag well behind other major EU countries. The report stresses the link between good work and more productive work and makes the point that other countries that are more productive than us give their employees greater protection and a bigger say in key decisions and how they organise their work. Contrary to Conservative rhetoric, weak labour standards, fewer employment rights, longer hours and a general disregard for low pay and mistreatment at work does not make us more successful.

Not all workplaces are troubled, but many people at work are unhappy and worried. According to new polling in the report, growing levels of disquiet and dissatisfaction are no longer the preserve of the low-skilled and low-paid. Concerns about job security and job status are just as pronounced among white collar as blue collar workers, and worries about insecurity at work are increasing across the board and in all parts of the country. Furthermore, the evidence shows that the gap between the best employers and the rest is widening and there are now more incidences of workplace exploitation.

The report seeks to develop the idea of ‘workplace citizenship’, based around the concept that work gives us meaning; that productive work is achieved by colleagues working together; that success requires employees having a say over their work; and that fair rewards and security require a rebalancing of the power relationship at work. Rather than allowing a race to the bottom, the report calls for government to do more to create a culture at work of consultation and engagement. Government can also lead the way by improving the enforcement of employment regulations (especially on equalities, the minimum wage and precarious agency work), by becoming a living wage employer, and by using its power of procurement to improve pay and conditions for thousands of contract workers.

Few believe that we can go back to the highly unionised world of the 1970s and reinvent the workplace institutions that characterised that period. Instead the report focuses on solutions for tomorrow’s world of work, including new employment rights, support for fair pay, rights to information on executive pay and low pay; measure to reduce the gender pay gap; and reform of the ICE regulations to strengthen collective employee voice. It also advances the case for management training, overhauling the employment tribunal system and promoting collective bargaining.

The report offers Labour a distinct and coherent narrative for the election that says making work better is good for employees, good for employers, and good for the nation. This is not just a rallying call to the Labour movement, but an agenda that can reach out to all those in work.

Paul Hackett is Director of the Smith Institute

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