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Starmer at Work: Will Labour’s new ‘politics of work’ achieve workplace dignity?

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Dignity at work has formed a central theme of Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party. In April last year, John Cruddas published a persuasive book making the case for recentring the Labour Party upon a ‘new politics of work’. In building upon a wealth of academic research Cruddas provided a compelling account of the importance of paid work for our wellbeing and that, therefore, enhancing dignity at work should form the basis of Labour’s political project.

Cruddas’ book seemingly met with a receptive audience in Starmer, who went on to discuss the dignity of work at length in his September Party Conference speech. In contrast to the present widespread workplace injustice, deskilling, and insecurity, Starmer put forward a vision of dignity and respect founded upon job security, good pay, intrinsic-skill use, and effective trade unions.

Labour’s ‘Employment Rights Green Paper’ outlines a host of polices intended to translate this vision into reality. Worker rights would be significantly enhanced with sick pay, holiday pay, parental leave, protection against unfair dismissal, and flexible working becoming available to all workers from day one. Fire and rehire practices and zero-hour contracts would be banned, and employers required to provide notice of shift changes. Meanwhile, a new right to ‘disconnect’ would be created. Importantly a labour market enforcement body employing well-resourced labour inspectors empowered to undertake unannounced inspections would be established. These reforms would undoubtedly make a material difference to many people’s lives by ending the worst abuses of vulnerable workers. But what about enhancing dignity at work across the wider labour market?

The main mechanism for wider labour market transformation is seemingly intended to be the strengthening of trade unions with much of the green paper focusing on the creation of ‘Fair Pay Agreements’. These agreements would be negotiated between trade unions and employer representatives and would cover minimum terms and conditions for all workers in a sector. Importantly, they would not be limited to pay but also cover pensions, working time and holidays, training, work organisation, diversity and inclusion, health and safety, and the deployment of new technologies. Again we can expect they would improve minimum standards but it is less clear they would achieve wider ‘pride, security and dignity’ at work.

Academic research suggests there are two reasons why Fair Pay Agreements on their own would have limited impact. Firstly, any agreement would be determined by the relative bargaining power of the parties. Indeed it has been found that more extensive and centralised collective bargaining in Germany or France does not lead to better job quality than in the UK. This is because workers in these countries are, irrespective of collective bargaining, still faced with employers who can threaten to shut down or relocate their operations. This leaves worker representatives with little leverage with which to bargain concessions from employers.

The ineffectiveness of collective bargaining when workers lack bargaining power was recently demonstrated by the treatment of P&O ferries staff by their employer DP World. In March, DP World sacked 800 UK workers and replaced them with foreign agency workers, reportedly, paid just £1.80 an hour. The impunity with which the company was able to ignore the recognised unions and unlawfully fire many unionised workers demonstrates the ineffectiveness of collective agreements in constraining harmful employer behaviour if they are not underpinned by strong worker bargaining power.

Secondly, meaningful work, autonomy and intrinsic skill-use are all outcomes of specific workplace dynamics. Setting minimum standards for an entire sector would not directly alter workplace management practices or firm-level work organisation. What research finds is that job quality is improved by workers having influence at the level of the workplace, firm, labour market and government as is the case in Scandinavia. Therefore, in addition to sectoral collective bargaining, co-determination laws, common in many European countries, are also needed to enhance the voice of workers within the workplace and firm.

The green paper does make some moves towards recognising the need for co-determination, stating that the introduction of surveillance technologies would be subject to consultation and agreement by union or workforce representatives. But it is unclear why co-determination should be limited to surveillance technology rather than encompassing all major workplace changes ­– with workers having vetoes on outsourcing and the adoption of all new technologies. Likewise, to enhance employee voice at the firm level, worker representatives should be elected to the boards of medium and large businesses as in Germany.

However, again research in Scandinavia demonstrates that improving job quality is not only a question of enhancing employee representation but also ensuring worker voice is of sufficient strength not to be ignored. When push comes to shove, workers need a means to shove back and not simply be shoved over. For this reason, a new right to strike that boosts the leverage of workers over both employers and the state is needed. This new right should be modelled on worker rights in Sweden and do away with undemocratic notice periods and thresholds, legalise secondary action, boycotts and general strikes and additionally entitle those taking official industrial action to full pay – so that no one has to choose between dignity at work or their children eating.

Of course, policies aimed at radically enhancing the power of organised labour would likely incur the wrath of business and the right-wing media. But if Starmer is serious about improving job quality and ensuring dignity at work, then the research is clear and this will require extending collective worker representation and influence at the workplace, firm, sector and state level.

This piece was first published in the new issue of Futures of Work, also featuring contributions by Andrew Pakes and Frederick Harry Pitts. For more on the future of work, read their Progressive Britain paper Labour and the Past Present and Future of Work.