The social work-contract

By John Morgan

We face in the next few decades waves of casualisation, fragmentation and atomisation in workplace relations, potentially of a severity on a par to the first industrial revolution. There is an increasingly common view that governments and regulators are struggling to articulate coherent theories of industrial relations and the employment relationship fit for this modern era. The left contend that this leads to inadequate regulation of labour markets; breeding improper working conditions, then dissatisfaction, then political disengagement, then the rise of the far right. Thus does labour law appear to be the canary in the mine for other problems of our age.

In response to these trends, many academic and political thinkers have started to develop new theories of work – and how it and its fruits should be distributed in society. A key role of Fabian Futures will be drawing together the strands of this debate, to the benefit of decision makers, together with acting as a forum for those discussions. One must seek an efficient and predictable body of rules in order to support the growth of promising new industries which promise efficiency savings, while avoiding exploitation and threatening labour protections. Some increasingly common features of the modern workplace that most require out attention are as follows:

  • The increasing monopsony – a single employer existing in one area or sector of the economy – of large corporates has only exacerbated the shift towards increasingly casual, precarious and low paid work, driving wages and conditions below the existing market trend. The increasing concentration of market share and power in large corporates has been documented by organisations from the IMF to US Presidential contender Elizabeth Warren. While the root cause is debated (theories range from the increasing importance of software over manufactured products, to weaker competition laws), the effect – of weaker competition for good employees – is undisputed amongst those on the left.

    The effects of a lack of competition for good employers have been documented in the oft-cited Road to Wigan Pier for the twenty-teens, Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain. In it, its author, James Bloodsworth, documents the travails of life as a warehouse worker, ride-hailing driver and social care worker. In each setting, the unfailingly horizontal structure of the workplace and lack of alternative work creates little pressure on the employer to offer interesting or well-remunerated arrangements: staff have little leverage to argue their conditions should be improved. How can we say a contract has been validly bargained if one party is led to the water and told to drink?
  • This situation has exposed weaknesses in orthodox employment contract principles, which increasingly fail to match the expectations of the parties to the contract and the economic realities between parties. Orthodoxy suggests an individual should play employers off against each other, with an upward cycle of wages and conditions resulting. That has, somewhere, gone awry. Compoundingly, employers increasingly seek to avoid giving their workers employment status. This poses questions about the relevance of longstanding legislative and regulatory interventions – the right to paid holiday, protections from discrimination, the right to sickness absence pay – which were designed to protect citizens from the worst excesses of profiteering. Potential responses to this problem range from tweaking employment protections in the vein of the UK government’s Taylor Review, to providing a universal basic income or Fully Automated Luxury Communism in which tools of production are held by the collective.
  • At the same time, individuals who are able to achieve relatively good terms and conditions still have to face the problem that their job may be, in the modern parlance, ‘bullshit’. In an essay which exploded onto the internet in August 2013, David Graeber articulated a theory of ‘bullshit jobs’ which took aim at the increasingly administrative, paper-pushing, compliance-focused aspects of modern work. Whether he is correct or incorrect in this analysis is neither here nor there; the striking fact is that the essay struck a chord with so many who self-identified their job as falling within this category.

    While one may at first congratulate anyone able to persuade their employer to pay money for nothing, such workers report the dire effect spending large portions of their waking hours doing things they know are of little or no consequence has on their mental health. This phenomenon causes other problems, for example presenteeism in workers who are aware there is ever increasing competition for fewer ’good’ jobs, and that they must win the favour of their employer. Speaking of The Meritocracy Trap at the LSE, Daniel Markovits noted stark increases in the working day for skilled professionals: where previously a banker could spend the afternoon in the pub, now they work until 2am. This occurs at the same time as many are underemployed, unable to find sufficient work to support an adequate standard of living. This poses questions of the traditionally understood efficiency of capitalism; such that one may posit that Britain’s productivity problem is exacerbated by the increasing disconnect between effort expended and output achieved.

Of course, labour law’s seeming inability to fulfil its previously understood role of rebalancing unequal power arises not from an accident of legal history, but from political ideology and dominant conceptions of labour, community, and society. While there is much being done, not least by the Fabian Society, in reexamining the role of collective and individual labour protections in light of automation, there is a valid conversation to be had about the wider trends in 21st century work. The questions above are just some of those one may consider in this discussion, which should acknowledge the benefits of flexibility and automation alongside their potential ill-effects. The political class is increasingly aware, and there exists ever more vigorous public debate. There is therefore great potential for futures thinking to explore how demographic, technological and societal changes may exacerbate existing difficulties, and play a role in what comes next.

John Morgan is a lawyer, originally from Scotland but now based in London, who is interested in both the theoretical and practical impact of automation and flexibility on the world of work. He frequently writes on this and other labour law subjects, covering both the UK and US perspectives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s