We Really Need to Talk About Work

A picture taken during the miners' strikes, a key moment in the fight for better standards of work..

After four decades of neoliberalism, Jean Jenkins says it’s time for a meaningful debate about workplace dynamics and standards of work.

We really do need to talk about work, for what exactly has work become? Is it a means of self-fulfilment and a pathway to a better future, perhaps even some modest personal wealth – or a life-long, low-paid drudgery, characterised by insecurity and unpredictability? 

In my own working life I have tasted the real, deadening despair of facing another day of work I hated, with seemingly little prospect of an end in sight. I have, fortunately, also experienced the sense of self-validation that comes from work that feels meaningful, purposeful and worthwhile, not simply in terms of what I do in my daily employment, but also for the access my wage affords me to the necessities of life – an affordable mortgage, the ability to undertake a weekly food shop, pay for transport services and basic utilities. 

Should I feel grateful for this? Is it the gift of a ‘good employer’ that allows me to eat well, keep a roof over my head and heat my home, or is it the result of being employed in a sector where collective bargaining has ensured I can enjoy reasonable conditions of work? I would argue it is the latter. 

As we all know to our climate cost if nothing else, the market has neither brain, long term vision nor morality

It has been four decades or more since the ‘market’ came to dominate the distribution of resources in societies at home and abroad. The coming of the neoliberal era meant that collective bargaining, once acknowledged in the UK (by the Donovan Commission) to be the best way to regulate employment, came under concerted attack.  

Sadly, as we all know to our climate cost if nothing else, the market has neither brain, long term vision nor morality. Where this neoliberal model of production and consumption has succeeded spectacularly, is in generating wealth that is shared by fewer and fewer people and organisations. On all other measures of equality, stability and environmentally sensitive development it has largely failed to deliver. Wealth has not trickled down to the majority of the world’s workers, and there is little evidence of more sustainable or equitably shared wealth and benefits, either within or between countries.  

How has this affected our views of what we have a right to expect of work? In today’s labour market we have come to accept the return of many aspects of employment that by the mid-twentieth century had been constrained or outlawed by the combined forces of collective bargaining and government regulation. 

The history of work is so often obscured and the logic of ‘the market’ has become so much a part of our collective ‘common sense’ that we can fail to identify the erosion of hard-won rights. Increasingly, it is only the grossest examples of abuse and exploitation that attract widespread censure, such as the ‘business case’ recently put forward by P&O in justifying the wholesale dismissal of workers in favour of a cheaper workforce. Such examples are so clearly ‘wrong’ that public outrage is loud in asking ‘how could this happen’?  

The answer demands that we reflect on power as a feature of the employment relationship and challenge our contemporary expectations of work and employment, where the everyday ‘wrong’ is not so easy to pin down. 

For example, it is now considered perfectly reasonable that an employer in need of ‘flexibility’ might not offer workers predictable hours and may arbitrarily cut or lengthen the duration of work shifts in real time, depending on customer footfall or demand, often without pay. A substantial portion of the risk of the business thus comes to rest with individual workers least able to bear a loss in wages. How could this happen? After decades of judging everything by market principles and the business case, our expectations of work have been eroded by inches. 

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It is therefore a source of hope that the language around employment in Wales is an indicator of green shoots and possibilities for change. While employment is not an area of regulation devolved to Wales, the focus in the Senedd on establishing an environment for ‘fair work’ is laudable, as is the concern to champion social partnership. 

Beyond this, there is a pressing need to position work at the centre of all aspects of life – at once an influencer of – and influenced by – education, housing, transport and health. Work and employment is the arena where all these aspects of life come to rest, alternately making different forms of work possible to imagine or placing ambitions out of reach. It is therefore important to understand what can be done under the existing devolution settlement to address standards of work, as well as what may form the basis of future aspirations for workers in Wales.

However, in this context, we cannot rely only on regulation or lofty commitments to social partnership and principled aspirations for fairness in work, valued as they are. In setting the tone for workplace relations it is essential to engage fully with the power and realities of work, realities which make it impossible for isolated individualised workers to enforce their rights in law, even assuming they know what those rights might be. No legal or contractual right is meaningful in the absence of the power to enforce it, and any such power can be made null and void by a hostile supervisor at workplace level. This is where social partnership is played out and can be promoted or undermined; it’s as simple as that.

Where does this take us in talking about work in Wales? Well, first perhaps we could question whether the prospect of ‘good work’ should have to rely on the concept of a ‘good employer’ who somehow gifts better conditions to those they employ. Could it rather be the outcome of workers and their representatives occupying a rightful place in the discussions over how society’s wealth and resources should be distributed? 

Robust collective organisation and collective representation at the workplace is one crucial democratic means by which policy and practice can be made coherent and standards of work and employment can be raised. Workers’ representatives are the very best enforcers of regulation if empowered to do so. Social partnership implies this is already the case in workplaces in Wales, but is it? It is pertinent to ask how the partnership approach is made manifest at workplace level. Is access to trade union representation ‘allowed’ or actively promoted? The answers to these questions are fundamental to the social partners’ attitudes to one another, and by extension are influential for society’s views of them, their roles and how we talk about work.

Those who set the agenda determine the tenor of the discussion about work. We need meaningful debate that fully recognises the legitimate but sometimes competing interests of the social partners and the representation of workers’ interests. If we could talk about the dynamics of work and employment in an open, grounded way, it might just liberate us to envision more clearly the diverse challenges which lie ahead. It might also shift the focus from remedying harms done, to engagement with workers and their representatives in the creation of a distinctive climate for workplace relations and, ultimately, a raising of our collective expectations for standards of work in Wales. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Professor Jean Jenkins is Professor of Employment Relations and Head of the Management, Employment and Organisation (MEO) Section at Cardiff Business School; she is also Co-Director of WISERD, the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data.

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