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The Future of Work Must Be Written By Us

Angela Eagle speaking at the 2016 Unions21 conference. Credit: Unions21

It has almost become clichéd to raise the spectre of ‘unprecedented change’ in the workplace, with the advance of automation and digital disruption, the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, and apocalyptic scenarios of every profession being taken over by robots. And yet disruption to employment patterns is nothing new. The history of the workplace is one of constant evolution in response to technological, economic and cultural change.

The first wave of mass industrialisation, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, wiped out longstanding models of employment for self-employed weavers and textile workers. The second industrial revolution, spurred on by growth in electricity, travel and communications networks caused a further major displacement of labour as productivity and the use of machines surged.

We are now experiencing a sense of disruption comparable to that of earlier industrial revolutions. In recent years we have witnessed the replacement of human jobs by technology in a whole range of spheres in our day-to-day lives, from train stations to libraries to supermarket check-outs. And the stable employment that persisted for much of the twentieth century increasingly looks like a thing of the past. The UK now has a record 4.8 million self-employed workers. 900,000 are on zero-hours contracts and 1.7 million are in temporary work. For some this brings welcome flexibility and autonomy. But for others it is a source of insecurity, and an increasingly precarious and detached relationship with their labour.

Throughout history the workforce has adapted to the changing workplace. As old jobs have disappeared, new ones have been created, and employment legislation has evolved to take account of these changing circumstances. But this has come about not by chance, but through concerted action and sustained pressure on government and employers to improve the lives of working people.  

A popular misconception is that the Luddites in the early nineteenth century smashed up modern machinery as a protest against industrial advancement. Their protest was in fact against exploitative working conditions and pay. Without the collective power of a union, the capacity to put pressure on employers was limited, and it was the simmering unrest during this period which soon activated the trade union movement.

As we now face a whole new set of challenges in the workplace, the labour movement is needed more than ever. Our values have not changed – we must work together to secure decent jobs and living standards for all working people. But the means by which we achieve this outcome will not be the same as in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, and unions will need to be creative and flexible in their thinking.

Many of our laws are simply not fit for the twenty-first century. Our employment laws do not correspond to the expanding definition of self-employment and the rise of firms like Uber and Deliveroo, our tax laws are not effective when capital can be moved around the world so easily, and even the social security system does not match up with modern working patterns and family set-ups. These are some of the many policy challenges that the labour movement must now seek to address.  

The debates in the run-up to the EU referendum brought to the surface a new politics of identity and belonging. This has given certain politicians licence to indulge in irresponsible rhetoric around foreign workers, and to seek deceitfully simplistic solutions by blaming immigrants for the lack of control people have over their own lives. What this debate has failed to address is the extent to which modern working practices, and the break-up of the stable working communities of the twentieth century, have contributed to this absence of control. Surely there is nothing that anchors people more to society and their immediate community than a decent and secure job? The key challenge for policy-makers in the twenty-first century is to grasp just how the state, employers and the labour movement can secure a new arrangement for working people, one that provides high wages and decent conditions, and instils a sense of dignity and belonging for everyone. 

Angela Eagle, @angelaeagle, is the Labour MP for Wallasey and a patron of Unions21.

The Future of Work is a major theme at the Unions21 Conference which takes place in London on 21 March. Detail and registration are here