Uber is, after all – and as we know – an employer

This morning’s Supreme Court judgment that workers employed by Uber are, in fact, workers rather than people operating on an entirely bogus self-employed basis is welcome. Uber has been getting away with this kind of regulatory arbitrage for too long and the unions – both mainstream (GMB) and grassroots (the app drivers union) – as well as the officers and representatives, and members, responsible for bringing it to the very top of the UK court system deserve praise and congratulations.

The simple lesson is that unions work – do join one.

The Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers are workers because:

  • Uber sets the fares and the drivers have no say
  • the contractual terms under which they work are dictated by Uber
  • while drivers are free to log in and out of the app as they choose, their choice of whether to accept rides is constrained by Uber
  • Uber exercises a significant degree of control over how drivers offer their services via specifying age, colour and condition of their car; as well as the route they need to take to carry the passenger. The approval ratings system also has something to say here, too
  • Uber restricts communication between passenger and driver to the minimum necessary to perform the trip; Uber handles all the co-ordination between driver and passenger.

As a consequence of these facts, the Supreme Court agreed with the conclusion of the original employment tribunal that Uber drivers were ‘workers’. The Supreme Court also ruled that Uber drivers were working whenever they were logged in not, as Uber had argued, whenever they accepted a trip request. This important finding in relation to the operation of the working time regulations means that Uber drivers are entitled to the minimum wage in respect of periods when they are logged-in to the app but not engaged on trips. Uber, while now licking its wounds, is clearly thinking about what to do next.

The UK court decision came shortly after a Dutch court decision ruling earlier this week (in Dutch) that employees there of Deliveroo, the courier-based food delivery operator, were also employees on the grounds of the control to which they were subject while at work administered through the (in)famous company algorithm which allocates tasks and which controls ‘the line’ between the production of food and the couriers bringing it to customers’ front doors.

It’s also an important tribute to the work of the UK court system – the lower level specialist courts (the employment tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal) got this decision entirely right, as did the Court of Appeal. Uber has lost at each of the four stages of the UK court system, and all three of the appeals (on how each lower court had applied the law) that it was permitted to make. The decision of the UK court system is, as a result, entirely clear – and this will be important in the future.

This is indeed welcome news for a Friday – but, on Saturday, the hard work comes.

Firstly, the UK court decision is that Uber drivers are ‘workers’ – a slightly strange ‘halfway house’ in UK law which distinguishes between employees on the one hand and self-employed people on the other and, in the middle, the self-employed who are offering their services as part of a business carried on by others. The ACAS website has a helpful summary of the differences between the different classes but, essentially, while ‘workers’ are entitled to some rights of employment, they are not entitled to all and, importantly, they are excluded from unfair dismissal laws, from protection against redundancy and from paid sick leave and parental leave. Furthermore, those employed on zero hours contracts, working ‘as and when’, are frequently classed as ‘workers’. Those gaps (still) need closing.

Secondly, as my colleague Steve Jary, National Secretary for aviation and defence for Prospect, tweeted this morning: the absence of the long-awaited Employment Bill on workers’ rights after Brexit may now be shortened and may well include a clause reversing this judgment. Court decisions are an important source of protection when it comes to rights – but they are only ever interpretations: statute law always comes first and will set aside court judgments. We know that the Director of Labour Market Enforcement Strategy – a government office in charge of investigating compliance with labour market laws, chiefly in connection with the informal economy – is already suggesting action on app-based businesses, which gives a direct feed into whatever the government intends to do about this. We can expect the government to be taking an interest not least because one of the stated reasons for Brexit is that the EU’s regulatory approach is ‘too precautionary’ (£) and that, not least in new economy sectors, businesses need to be ‘set free’ from regulation to innovate further. This is where the clarity of the Supreme Court judgment is really important – there is no ‘confusion’ here for which legislation is necessary in order ‘to clarify’.

Furthermore, Prop 22, a pro-platform ‘gig economy’ law which was consulted on in California in last November’s US elections was passed with support from Uber, Lyft and other platforms in a campaign costing them collectively north of $200m. The venture capitalists funding these platforms – which are perennial eaters of money – have deep pockets in pursuit of monopoly rents and we can now expect similarly intensive, and expensive, lobbying efforts to be made here too to ensure the Employment Bill reverses the decision. Uber will come out of this fighting – and the other platforms will join it.

Thirdly, platform companies are at the forefront of a ‘new world of work’ in which their workers are the guinea pigs. What working conditions are ‘enjoyed’ by platform workers today will, over time, become the new standard for workers in conventional companies elsewhere. This is not only a question of legislation but active defence and pushback in practice. Aspects of working life through the pandemic – with greater use of surveillance software on computers to check what workers are doing while working at home – is one aspect of this while another is to ensure that there is a ‘right to disconnect’ – a right to downtime and non-work time. This is crucially important as the pandemic has trapped us into an existence in which we not only live at home but work from there and, indeed, get our meals delivered there, too.

Finally, there is also a warning for trade unions here, too. It’s not enough to win court judgments – active mobilisation of the workers involved is also extremely important: indeed, the two must go hand-in-hand. This goes well beyond exhortations to join a union and traditional organising efforts. These are fundamental – but, to coin a phrase, they are only ever the basis of trade unionism and they are not enough by themselves. This is about hearts and minds and engagement around actually doing something. It’s quite painful for some of us to realise that the logic of collective action (Colin Crouch) is not all about orienting people towards ‘the agreement’ (Hugh Clegg) but, actually, about the logic of mobilising workers to strive for something; nevertheless, this is an important realisation which must be made. Mobilising is about workers getting out and doing something together, not about joining a union with the promise that something might happen (tomorrow, later) to improve your terms and conditions if more of you join. Gains won in courts, and in agreements, must not only be defended but advanced and ‘staircase’ agreements (reached with a view to establishing an agreement in an employer with a view to improving it) will not function unless workers are not only organised but mobilised; not just collectivised by being brought into the union but actively engaged in entrenching gains and then extending them. Mobilisation is where grassroots unions score heavily – though it is clear also that winning Supreme Court cases is likely to require the support, not to say advice, of a mainstream union.

In short, this is a great win – but it is absolutely not the beginning of the end. The hard work must start now.

EDIT 22/2/21 to put right the previous version’s incorrect inference about drivers’ entitlement to the minimum wage; and to correct the name and affiliation of the grassroots union involved in bringing the action.

The battle over working time

I think it’s fairly obvious by now that the reason why the EU working time directive, and its application in UK law, was not on Hannan’s list was that it’s so very obviously at the very top of it he hardly thought it actually needed to be mentioned.

The assertion late last week by Kwasi Karteng, Secretary of State for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, that the government had no plans to dilute workers’ rights was believed by no-one, for reasons not least of all that Kwarteng was co-author, along with a number of other leading representatives in this Vote Leave government (Priti Patel and Dominic Raab among them), of Britannia Unchained. This was a call written back in 2012 for an end to the UK’s ‘bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation’ and (in)famously described UK workers as:

Among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.

Karteng’s non-credible denial was rapidly followed yesterday by confirmation in parliament that the government is, indeed, looking at scrapping some EU labour laws, including a ‘relaxing’ of the working time directive. Another lesson in the ‘never trust a Tory’ narrative.

In the midst of a pandemic and post-Brexit uncertainty – is, of course, scrapping workers’ rights can scarcely be much of a priority. Working class families are struggling with huge numbers of issues, including insecurity at work as a result of employment laws failing to keep up with the pace of change in employers’ exploitation of them, while still (in substantial numbers of cases) occupying positions as keyworkers keeping this country going. Furthermore, ‘building back better’ post-Covid-19 requires the sorts of consensus-building exercises and extending involvement to workers’ organisations that, actually, comes as second nature in Europe proper but which is clearly entirely foreign territory to this government. By definition, scrapping workers’ rights does not embody much in the way of consensus building.

Other than that, however, I wanted to make two (main) points.

Firstly, Karteng points to ‘being struck’ by ‘how many EU countries – I think it’s about 17 or 18 – have essentially opted out of the working time directive’. This is of course rhetorical nonsense: ‘countries’ cannot ‘opt out of the working time directive’ – EU health and safety laws have general application across the EU and are not available on the pick’n’mix counter. (As indeed should social and employment rights not be either, although that is a slightly different argument.) What he does mean is that member states are allowed to deviate from bits of the working time directive where – crucially, but which is frequently forgotten – this is with the agreement of the individual worker (calling to mind here the blanket forms issued to employees, especially new recruits, and where coercion rather than ‘agreement’ has been the keyword). Alternatively, this can be done – other than in the UK – where there is a collective agreement in place. With the specific maximum 48-hour week limit in mind (the working time directive being about much more than just that), there is a qualification which must be met about the protection of the health and safety of workers being guaranteed. This is all covered summarily, and very usefully, in Opting out of the European Working Time Directive, a publication from the European Foundation from 2015 and bits of which Karteng – more probably an adviser – seems to have read.

In particular, pages 4-5 of the document summarise the positions across the then EU. Broadly, it is not possible for workers to opt (or be opted) out of the provisions across Scandinavia, southern and south-eastern Europe (other than Bulgaria) and Ireland; some, limited opt-outs are available across the swathe of central Europe; while broad opt-outs are (or were) the case in the UK, Cyprus, Malta, Estonia and Bulgaria.

Consequently, the number of opt-outs are (surprisingly) not as many as Karteng would like to portray and, actually, they encompass those among the peripheries of the EU. So, it will not be as easy as all that to remove these protections without triggering a response in kind from the EU as regards the tariffs it will be able to impose, under the free trade agreement agreed and signed before Christmas, where the UK departs from EU norms.

I suspect that Karteng knows this very well and that this exercise is a little bit of testing the waters to see who is listening (the EU will be, of course) and thus to see what he may be able to get away with. But it won’t therefore be much, except at a price: the UK can only depart from EU norms under the agreement in limited, and heavily circumscribed, ways: the price of negotiating with experienced, expert negotiators. The phrase ‘rule taker, not rule maker’ springs to mind as regards the UK’s post-Brexit future – while that, of course, for any number of reasons including among Brexiteers themselves, is simply unsustainable in anything other than the short-term. Again, I suspect Karteng is also very well aware of this. Expect therefore more war, in private of course, within the Tory Party over the next few years. This testing of the waters is being done with that in mind, too.

Secondly is the issue of the direction of reductions in working time. Historically, working time fell for much of the twentieth century but, from around 1980 onwards, such a trend has slowed and even, in some cases, been reversed. There are a number of reasons for this, explained in depth in a very useful paper – The Why and How of Working Time Reduction – written by colleagues from the European Trade Union Institute (I believe an update will also be available shortly). Again unsurprisingly, hours (of full-time workers: the key to the Britannia Unchained phrase) are not lower than elsewhere: such hours are pretty standard but the UK ranked among the highest in the EU.

The working time directive is a health and safety law. It was proposed under a particular section of the European legislative framework allowing a majority vote by member states and its aim is to improve health and safety. Nevertheless, it also improves social rights in allowing workers the opportunity to control, in some small way, aspects of their working time and, thereby, to achieve some measure of influence with the employer as regards their work-life balance. All of this is, of course, why the Tories hate it and why the working time directive is at the top of the list for removal (pro tem: restriction). It also explains very well why it needs to be defended. At a time of the deunionisation of society in general – stout battles still taking place in certain sectors – we can expect to see such gains as were made in working time during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century reversed here too, deunionisation being one explanation for the gains having come to a halt.

As Brexiteers have already implicitly observed, this issue is one that underpins huge aspects of the future social organisation of this country. It concerns not only the decoupling of wages and productivity – with gains in national income not going to workers over the last few decades – but taken instead by capital owners in the form of corporate profits and shareholder dividends. It is not just that, to quote that phrase again, ‘productivity is poor’: it is, but quite clearly wages are even poorer and, in comparison, becoming increasingly so. We know from the theory that such a decoupling leads to rises in income inequality – something in which the UK is, shamefully, among the countries already taking a bit of a lead. But also, with fresh concerns of job loss through mechanisation and robotisation (on top of those lost in the destruction wreaked in hospitality and the arts and entertainment industry during the pandemic, as well as the loss of workers who have, simply, gone away), reduced working time in compensation for the impact of mechanisation on the jobs and security of workers has again come back on the agenda, as indeed has the idea of a universal basic income.

When we emerge from the pandemic, the quality of jobs will also matter and, in this respect, a National Recovery Council, as proposed by the TUC, has a clear role in building consensus and support for a better, more inclusive society. Furthermore, if the loss of substantially younger workers as pointed to by ESCoE is correct, increased mechanisation to deal with the loss of workers is one possible outcome. That may, in turn, raise productivity – but wages, and the labour share in general in terms which also encompass working time, need to rise too. Working hours in the UK are not low – but they do need to be lowered and there are thus many pressures building in that direction.

All this is why the Tories want to knock the working time directive on the head – and, furthermore, why they want to do it now while the pandemic is causing much of a distraction and when this lends itself, at a time of prospective rises in mechanisation, all too readily to people being regarded as ‘lucky to have a job’.

As always: Join a Union. And Organise.

Working from home: the gloss and the reality

Concerns over the spread of the corona virus, especially in view of the up to one in five workers who government estimates could be compelled to stay at home if the virus reaches the next stage, have revitalised a bit of interest in the potential of people working from home.

There are indeed rising numbers of people who are working from home, and 1.72m regularly did so in 2018, some 6% of the workforce, even if the rise is a little slower than advocates of flexible working policies would have hoped. The trend is certainly less than might have been expected from the scale of some major experiments taking place among large hi-tech employers in the 1990s, although a backlash was, sadly, clearly visible in some equally large hi-tech workplaces in the early part of this decade.

I was a homeworker between 2003 and 2016 and, aided by a supportive trade union employer, I hope I was a successful one. Currently, I’m a freelance writer and editor, and this post was written while sat at my desk, located in the office in my home.

As part of my work while in full-time employment, I used to edit a regular newsletter for the union’s homeworking members in which I regularly invited readers to contribute entries to our own ‘hall of infamy’ as regards the sorts of pictures which media organisations use to illustrate stories about homeworking. Frequently, these tended to feature young people slouching over a laptop, soft furnishings or kitchen counters in full view, adopting in the process a variety of unsuitable and unhealthy postures; or which portrayed them somehow balancing laptop and baby, sometimes with a mobile phone thrown in for good measure. There was always quite a haul. This is evidently not ‘homeworking’ – the clue is in the name; and, while homeworking might allow people better to juggle work responsibilities and domestic caring ones, the two – as in traditional workplaces – ought only rarely/never to come into contact with each other. Dedicated facilities are required, in both cases.

Consequently, it was a little disappointing to see BBC Scotland illustrate its story on Tuesday this week, on whether working from home would become the new normal, with a customary image drawn straight from the hall of infamy:

I’m not quite sure what this young woman is doing but, if it’s work, well, she won’t be doing it for long sat like that.

The trouble is, as all homeworkers know, this sort of image just feeds the prejudices – that homeworkers are not really doing a lot other than respond to phone calls as they come in and, strategically, a few e-mails now and again. In short, that working from home is a skive, and an unhealthy one, frequently carried out by people in their PJs (and often in bed or, otherwise, sat cross-legged on the sofa), punctured by regular trips to the fridge, to the washing machine, to the TV or, once dressed (presumably), to the shops.

The reality, of course, is that homeworkers are usually more productive – there is nothing necessarily efficient about office working, where distractions are also ever-present and frequent; while there is of course an ‘observed worker’ effect in which people who are in the eye of their managers, so to speak, need frequently to show their effectiveness. And this very well describes the position that homeworkers are in. Typically also, the output of a modern day is infinitely measurable and there is nothing less in this respect about work being done at home compared to in an office. After all, work is what you do, not where you do it.

The jury might remain out on the environmental benefits of homeworking – some assessments showing a positive impact are now a little out of date; while other important ones are apparently lost to website changes (even if the press release is still available). Coincidentally, just a couple of weeks before the BBC Scotland story, elsewhere on the BBC, on its ‘Worklife’ project, there was a lengthy blog pointing to the nuances of the debate in which, with energy supply, including for transport, coming from increasingly renewable sources, there is a potential undermining of some of the argument for the sustainability of homeworking in the long-term. Even so, there remain clear pointers – and ones that are academically sustained – in favour of homeworking in terms of the reduction of network congestion and vehicular emissions in which there is an immediately positive return to health and to sustainability.

Working from home doesn’t suit everyone – and nor is everyone’s home necessarily suitable for homeworking. You do need to be possessed of a certain sort of temperament as an individual – ideally, the type not to need a lot of human interaction to sustain interest – and your home does need to be suitable for adaptation into an office environment: not necessarily a room set aside as an office, although that is the ideal, but otherwise a committed space in which you can go to work, undisturbed and which, equally importantly, doesn’t impinge on the rest of your home life once you’ve wrapped up for the day. It is for sound reasons that all homeworking must be a voluntary initiative – on both sides; and, if it is not – as always – see your trade union.

As is frequently the case, there is a calculation to be made, and a balance to be struck, about the benefits of homeworking and the suitability of homeworking solutions to domestic problems, or even to mass outbreaks of contagious and life-threatening illnesses.

Just no more the balance of I’ve-got-my-laptop-on-knee-while-I’m-sat-on-my-floor-but-I-am-working, please.

Queue-jumping: a few points in response

After returning yesterday evening from my trip out experiencing the atypical calm of a Hebridean autumn day, opening my Twitter account brought me denunciations of Theresa May’s reference to citizens from other EU countries coming to the UK as ‘queue jumping’. (And so, from calm to rage.) Quite rightly, too – it was offensive, shameful phrasing at which we can only wonder the reaction had this been said in Brussels, or Paris, or Madrid about British citizens taking advantage of free movement to make their lives in other countries – and no more ignorable for being just the latest in a long line of similar statements from Theresa May. I couldn’t pass up the chance to comment; and all the more so since the No. 10 spokesperson has apparently been trying to deny she said it: a pointlessly fallacious exercise (seemingly about semantics) when video exists of precisely what she said, and helpfully sub-titled, too. Either way, May was yesterday blowing a dog-whistle.

Firstly, the quote itself:

‘Once we’ve left the EU, we will be fully in control of who comes here. It will no longer be the case that EU nationals, regardless of the skills or experience they have to offer, can jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney, or software developers from Delhi.’

That is Brexit – right there. A complete misunderstanding of what EU rules and regulations allow us to do as a member; an obsession with queues and with others not following British (and British-influenced) queuing pecularities; and a hark back to the times when our closest links were not with those who with whom we have been building relationships over the last forty five years but with the countries of Empire.

The UK is not currently a part of the Schengen Agreement, so it still has borders at which it can routinely check the credentials of all who enter; and EU law means that those looking to stay beyond three months must be able to support themselves (and have comprehensive sickness insurance). The UK cannot enforce the three-month rule since it has no municipal procedure for registering citizens as do others in the EU (e.g. Belgium) and, while some might argue that this is a good thing from the perspective of the individual freedom of the citizen, it is, nevertheless, a public policy choice which prevents the UK from operating the rules of free movement as the EU actually envisages.

EU nationals working in this country to build their lives and this country are also skilled workers – some might even be engineers or software developers – and many of them were actually invited here by government departments to practise their skills and their professions. Several pieces of evidence – e.g. from the NHS – suggests that public services in particular may struggle in the light of the now-declining numbers of people coming into the UK for work from other EU countries. Furthermore, May’s reference has a presumption that freedom of movement for EU nationals is largely composed of people who have skill sets lower than those of engineers and software developers. Evidence on the skills mix is complicated but it is the case that ex-EU migrants are much more likely to be over-qualified for the jobs they are doing. And none of this is to ignore that care workers are required by the UK’s labour market – and increasingly so as our ‘domestic’ population ages.

The ending of free movement is of course a two-way street. In ending free movement for others to come here from the EU we are ending the free movement of UK nationals overseas, too. It is a truism to think that most ex-UK migrants have retired to Spain – the majority (some 80%) are of working age and, like most ex-EU nationals in this country, are likely actually to be in work. Regardless of the life situation of ex-UK migrants, they have all exercised entirely valid treaty rights and to castigate them, too, by implication, as queue jumpers is a disgracefully reactionary response.

The Migration Advisory Committee recently concluded that – to pick one of its several conclusions – ‘It remains the case that the majority of studies find no or little impact of immigration [i.e. from EEA countries] on the employment and unemployment outcomes of the UK-born workforce’ (para 1.30, p. 29). It is impossible to argue that importing engineers from Sydney would improve or deteriorate this position – but the logical end-point of seeing ex-EU nationals as ‘queue jumpers’ in the future is that the engineer from Sydney is likely to be preferred to the one from Germany. After all, pushing ‘queue jumpers’ back down the queue is the correct procedural etiquette. May’s quote is, in this context, insidious.

And finally, there is, of course, no such ‘queue’ of migrants waiting for jobs to emerge before coming to the UK – nor any such ‘priority’ being somehow given as a result to EU nationals. What there is, is an entirely arbitrary (and entirely baseless) ‘target’ of getting net migration (from all places elsewhere) down to below 100,000 annually first introduced by David Cameron in 2011 and then enthusiastically adopted by Theresa May. This immigration cap – declared recently by Alan Manning, chair of the Migration Advisory Commission, to be a ‘political target’ rather than actual immigration policy – is what is driving the notion that an engineer from Sydney can’t get into the country whereas Pawel the apprentice plumber fresh out of vocational school has no problem in doing so. It is a choice – we can have both depending on the requirements of our labour market, but it suits the government’s agenda to pretend that we can’t.

And therein lies the main issue – this relentless banging on about the problems of EU immigration is how the government is lining up to sell its ‘deal’. Theresa May – economically a remainer but socially and culturally a leaver – has form on this: it is what she knows and we all know that this is the only place where she is comfortable. It is an extension of the ‘hostile environment’ that she instituted when at the Home Office. We can expect more – much more – of this in the coming days and weeks now that the ERG’s loaded rifle has been revealed to be firing no more than blanks: it is May’s only chance of bringing the parliamentary arithmetic into a position that supports her approach.

[Edit: the exchange between journalists and the No. 10 spokesperson has now been published. It is not a meeting of minds – and, as regards the substance? Perhaps we can put it down to Theresa May being, again, very clear. Very clear.]

Pay, productivity and high performance: time to get a MAC?

I’ve resisted blogging about Brexit for quite some time, largely because the amount of lunacy out there is simply astonishing. Brexit remains, in my view, a policy outcome intended in the first place to settle internecine war within the Tory Party but which it is clearly failing to do – and, indeed, which it is turning out to be completely ill-equipped to do.

In such circumstances, while there remains an awful lot of stuff going on that policy needs to settle, there’s little for policy-makers to do but watch on in horror as this the Brexit sh*t show meanders to a conclusion. I’ve watched on in horror as public positions have solidified around the hardest of Brexits in the attempt to appease the Tory Party’s Brexiteers and as the policy debate has shifted further rightwards to the point where Brexit has not become a far-right project – it was always this, from the days before the referendum was called – but an excuse for the public outbursts (and worse) of illiberal, angry boors.

The UK leaving the EU is still the most likely conclusion – though you never know, and that’s no reason not to try – but making sense of what things will be like afterwards is an essential task facing policy-makers. (Were our public debate to mend itself more meaningfully to actual debate rather than false slogans on buses, this is of course the sort of thing that would have happened prior to the referendum. Nevertheless.)

One of the policy organisations trying to get on with life after likely Brexit is the Migration Advisory Committee, the government’s advisory body on issues – largely but not exclusively to do with the labour market – concerning the impact of migration. The MAC has been charged recently with coming up with a report on what effects migration has had on the UK’s economy and society, which it did last month in the background of a focus on its (almost certainly false) equation of wages with skill levels, and its recommendation to impose a £30,000 minimum salary requirement on labour immigration visas.

Last week, Professor Alan Manning, Chair of the MAC, appeared before the House of Lords Home Affairs sub-committee to discuss the findings. One of the issues raised was the (very) lukewarm recommendation to engage with a seasonal workers’ scheme for agriculture – though not for care – on the grounds that the sector was absolutely dependent on EU workers and there were no prospects of what we might call ‘domestic re-supply’ taking their place (I’m deliberately avoiding repeating the nauseating terminology of ‘settled workers’). You can watch the appearance here (relevant bit at c. 11:15.50) or else read the BBC’s report which contains a full quote of the statement behind this post.

The reason for the lukewarm nature of the recommendation is the low levels of productivity (stemming from low wages) in the agriculture sector, against the background of the government’s desire (in its ‘Plan for Britain’) to turn the UK (I think this is what it means) into a high productivity, high wage economy; and the view expressed by Professor Manning in his appearance, but which isn’t at all a conclusion of the report, that low-skilled migration has been ‘fiscally negative’. (Indeed, the report specifically says that there is no evidence that low-skilled migration has any negative impact on productivity, innovation or training – though it does say that high-skilled migration is (entirely unsurprisingly) ‘better’ in all these areas.)

Now, I’m very much in favour of the principle of a high wage, high productivity economy – except in that, like a lot of things this government does, having a plan is all very well but what is also required is that someone must actually do something to achieve it (it’s not going to be happen by wishing on a unicorn). Furthermore, an essential part of any plan must be the proper taking care of the local economic, employment and social impacts none of which can be left to the market, and this is somewhat missing from recent government pronouncements. (Had we taken greater care over the last forty years of those things that cannot be left to the market, we might well not be in this mess.)

Startlingly, Professor Manning said in his appearance that the loss of seasonal produce markets ‘wouldn’t be the end of the earth for the country as a whole’ and that giving agriculture ‘privileged access to labour’ wasn’t a way to achieve a high-productivity economy. I think this is both arrant and shockingly complacent:

1. agriculture is a market that is rigged by the big retailers. The demand for lower prices by the big supermarkets, the natural effect of the cut-throat competition facing them, is what will continue to keep wages in the sector down. At the same time, falling prices won’t provide the conditions for farmers to invest in automation to raise productivity, even if the incentive might be there to do so. The same rigged market is, by the way, also present in the care sector: it’s called austerity and the resultant cash strapping of the local authorities who fund care. The government can end austerity – but, in the context of agriculture, it also needs to do something to tackle the power of big retailers to force farm prices downwards

2. it is ridiculous to suggest that the appropriate policy response to the loss of soft fruits and asparagus is to import them instead. There is the issue of quality, with large areas of Scotland, e.g. The Carse stretching along the side of Tay from Perth to Dundee, having natural advantages for the growing of premium quality soft fruits. More than that, however, one of the focuses of the environmental debate is, quite rightly, reducing the food miles involved in the transport of our food from source to plate. It makes no environmental sense to import soft fruits that can be grown, and successfully, in the UK – and there is the issue of the use of preservatives to extend lifetimes, too. Yet, green issues and concerns are apparently absent from considerations in this debate

3. agriculture constitutes less than 1% of UK GDP. It is extremely facile to think that low productivity in agriculture is somehow holding the UK back from becoming a high productivity economy. Even more so when we are specifically speaking about low productivity in one tiny (see Table 2.2 under previous link) sector within the agriculture industry

4. Brexit is already likely to lead to up to 25% of farms in England going to the wall – and probably more in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if there is knock-on effect on budget subsidies to the devolved administrations. If this was an EU country, there would be consultation, a social plan and a desire to provide re-training programmes to provide a degree of support and re-orientation for those involved. But, this is the UK, and a country which is heading out of the EU

5. MAC suggests a (higher) minimum wage in agriculture will be required to provide upwards pressure on wages in the event that a seasonal workers’ scheme is introduced so as to raise productivity and in view of this ‘privileged access to labour’. I’m in favour of a higher living wage across the UK but I’m not sure that a minimum wage in the already distorted agriculture market, in isolation from a higher living wage particularly elsewhere in the food supply chain, will act in the way it thinks

6. to gain a high productivity economy, we would need, firstly, a more advanced manufacturing industry as a launchpad for a high skills, high technology revolution. However, Professor Minford, the economist that Brexiteers most like to listen to, was already prior to the referendum predicting (and indeed welcoming) the elimination of what little manufacturing industry we have left; although his post-referendum analysis is somewhat less apocalyptic predicting UK manufacturing profits ‘possibly higher than pre-Brexit levels’. (He’ll probably be right about something one day, at least on an infinite monkey basis.) Secondly, all workplaces, regardless of industry sector, need to be adopting much more of the sorts of high performance practices that create productivity and to which trade union general secretaries, for example, have pointed, and repeatedly. But, as EEF’s budget submission this week highlighted, there is precious little evidence of that. (The EEF submission also highlights that foreign-owned workplaces are more productive than ‘domestic’ ones. Funny that.)

Ultimately, if we’re to have a high productivity economy, we need our policy-makers to pay less attention to what is happening in agriculture and more to proselytising about high performance workplaces and putting clear incentives in place to encourage the adoption of high performance practices. Meanwhile, we know that a lot of people in primary industry areas such as agriculture voted for Brexit. But, funnily enough, I never saw ‘Vote Brexit: lose primary sector jobs and pay higher food prices’ on the side of a bus, either.

“I’m sorry Bill; I’m afraid we can’t do that”*

Crossing my Twitter feed quite a lot in the last few days has been snippets of information contemplating the future of work in the context of the growth of applications of artificial intelligence. Frequently, the recent debate uses the somewhat ancient terminology of robots, but the focus of the analysis is mostly the same: robots have already stolen the futures of much of the now left-behind working class; and are now coming again to steal the futures of much of the middle class, leaving behind in employment only artists, carers and supervisors. (And, probably, (Polish) plumbers.) The result of that is, of course, sheer panic among the chattering classes much of whom were either fairly silent first time round or otherwise insistent that people had simply to adapt to market forces and get on with it.

The spark for these thoughts here in this post was firstly a brief report of UNI Global Union’s contribution to the Trade Union Advisory Committee of the OECD (hat-tip: Denise McGuire), which was recently considering the issue under the somewhat more sophisticated title of ‘digitalisation and the future of work’; together with a thoughtful post on ToUChstone from the TUC’s own Tim Page (hat-tip: Sue Ferns) (and building on top of Helen Nadin’s earlier series of posts).

The threat posed to employment by new technology is of course a very real one – even if it is not one that is particularly new. Trade unions have been grappling with issues of applications in the workplace of new, computer-aided technology, initially in manufacturing industry, since at least the 1960s. The issue of ensuring how a just transition can take place is not only a reasonable, entirely rational call, as Page argues, but is also likely to continue to dominate the approach typically adopted by trade union negotiators faced with local arguments for change.

Whether the threats now being posed by AI do represent a quantitatively-different series of scythes through our employment base and structure than what we have seen before of course remains to be seen. I’m a little sceptical: capitalism is, by force of necessity, endlessly creative at establishing new forms of work (and, indeed, so are workers) and has been since the days of the Luddites and Captain Swing; the list of jobs unheard of ten years ago is fairly legendary (in the World Economic Forum’s list or that of many others) and, of course, all these robots will need servicing and maintaining not least to prevent them from going wrong. And software can, as we all know, be notoriously buggy. Some future jobs will be very well-paid, others less so – pretty much as now – but I tend to share less the fairly apocalyptic vision that this level of disruption will lead to mass unemployment and bankrupt states.

Enter Bill Gates, with his ‘robot tax’. To be fair, though, it’s not just Bill, as Market Watch‘s excoriating and mostly on-the-button review illustrates. Gates’s concern is really two-fold: to slow down the process of automation; and to prevent the process of automation becoming discredited. The obvious news on the first is that ‘well, you can’t’, although I am with him a bit more on the second. But a robot tax is not the right solution. That it’s so against the zeitgeist in the UK and in the US, among others, is neither here nor there in terms of its value as a policy prescription, although this does reduce its likely potential for adoption; the key here is actually in persuading the likes of Google and Amazon to pay their fair share of the current tax take rather than be endlessly creative around the tax laws, as well as in persuading right-wing governments not to engage in tax competition policies. (If only there was an international bloc to which we could belong that made tackling both of these a little easier: you know, like a Union of Europe, or something.) Secondly, automation should lead to improved productivity, and the UK needs a lot more of that, so anything that has the potential to inhibit investment has to be rejected; here, the major policy issue lies in narrowing the growing gap between wages and productivity and in addressing the share of national income taken by wages. In short, ending inequality. And thirdly, taxing a robot for taking someone’s job – and precisely how difficult would that be in the detail? – tends to lead to workers affected allocating the blame for that job loss on the robot rather than on the manager who has actually taken the decision to automate it.

Applications of new technology in the UK have, as they were supposed to, led to a continuing reduction in working time – at least, at the average level. What has happened is that this reduction has led to increasingly precarious forms of work being introduced for some workers (involuntary part-time working; bogus ‘freelance’ employment or self-employment); while others, in the ‘core’, tend to be working even harder, and longer. The rewards of lower working time have not only been unfairly distributed; but management has found a way to make that reduction actually seem like a penalty; and on both those who have too little work as well as on those who have enough of it. There is a debate to be had on the introduction of a basic income such that the rewards that automation has brought are better distributed (and, indeed, valued). And, of course, workers in precarious forms of employment need to be better protected – which includes treating those who are clearly workers as such.

The question nevertheless remains of how to ensure a just transition.

Firstly, and remembering that people in cities in northern England feel that they have been ‘left behind’ substantially because there was no serious, concerted attempt to deal with the impact of manufacturing job loss in the 1980s, we need to have a proper national industrial strategy which approaches digitalisation recognising the benefits of automatisation but which also systematically attempts to deal with the impact. The lesson we should be learning about areas like Stoke and Copeland is that it is the market solutions that we tried in the 1980s and 1990s that do not work. It is precisely the market, not politicians, that has left people behind (and if people need any arguments about the disconnect between people and the policy process, just look at the turnout in Stoke – just 36.7%). Reinvesting in areas of decline will take money, and substantial amounts of it – of course, one of the arguments behind the uses to which a ‘robot tax’ could be dedicated although the drawbacks sketched above still lead me away from it.

Secondly, the collective, societal issues sparked by automatisation require collective solutions. Individual responses often lead to the expressions of political frustration that we are seeing because individual voices appear incoherent. Consequently, we need to find ways of re-collectivising our society around establishing a meaningful and coherent social dialogue around the variety of issues raised by digitalisation. At company level, this means a re-focus on establishing proper collective bargaining in the interests of a fairer workplace; and it probably means worker directors, and in the form perfectly encapsulated in the fifth paragraph of Janet Williamson’s piece for ToUChstone (and nothing other than this). At national level, establishing collective social dialogue in the interests of a fairer society means changing the language around trade unions, such that effective industrial action is not immediately demonised by the government either in parliament or in terms of reaching for the statute book; and it means inviting trade union leaders into specific dialogue, and with a view not just to listening but to reaching agreement. Brexit, and the plethora of issues that will be raised once the process of withdrawal has been triggered, represents an important test of the realism of the government’s intentions n this respect.

Giving effective voice to people demands that we listen, however uncomfortable that might be and however inconvenienced we might be by it. The alternative – around automatisation as well as any other aspect of the national dialogue that we might consider – is that we create (or that we entrench) pathways for nationalism and for extremism.

 

* Of course, an adapted quote from HAL9000, the computer whose sentience continues to influence our thoughts and fears about the dangers of AI.