Why a new future politics of work is paramount after Covid-19

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By Professor Tony Dobbins, Professor of Employment Relations and HR Management
President of the British Universities Industrial Relations Association

Covid-19 is already having devastating effects on work, both in the UK and globally, with decreased employment and rising unemployment. In the UK, the state Job Retention Scheme is the only thing protecting many people from unemployment. But, what happens after?

While understandably policy-makers are pre-occupied dealing with Covid-19, they need to consider the future politics of work.

Rather than a utopian future without work (post-work society), most working people have no alternative to the wage-effort bargain, to survive in the working world as it is currently. Indeed, under market capitalism, people feel compelled to compete to be exploited for their labour contribution, as noted by sociologist Michael Burawoy. This doesn’t mean that citizens (and social science academics) cannot champion what could be more emancipatory working futures.

Most fundamentally, ditching neoliberalism and free market economics is the starting point. Forty years of neoliberalism has atrophied collective social institutions like the NHS/welfare state. But, to abandon neoliberalism, pressure needs to be applied collectively and through counter-movements against unrestricted market competition. There should be no return to the destructive failed politics of neoliberalism and austerity.

The state should play a more redistributive role. Policies considered taboo, even socialist, by Conservatives especially, need to be on the agenda to progressively reform post-crisis working lives.

In the UK, there are no political excuses for not rebuilding the welfare state (a new social contract), rewarding ‘real key workers’, and contemplating new welfare provisions like minimum income guarantees. Stronger employment protection rights for all workers, especially people employed in the gig economy, are required. Redistributing working hours, a shorter working week, and reducing underemployment, could be considered.

Moreover, a new jobs strategy is urgently needed placing job quality centre stage, and repairing socially damaged communities. Covid-19 demonstrates the importance of essential workers in the foundational economy. The state should focus on disadvantaged regions to guarantee better jobs grounded in ‘foundational economy’ local community necessities such as health and social care, housing, transport, food production, and green projects.

Foundational economy policies could be combined with a Job Guarantee (JG) scheme. A JG could initially be piloted in the most disadvantaged places. In doing so, the state could facilitate new human-centred social contracts to stop extreme cases of profit/shareholder maximisation and labour exploitation. Responsible employers trading in local communities would comply with procurement rules embedding social responsibilities like good-quality secure jobs guaranteeing a real living wage, living hours, training and trade union representation.

Mainstream media and economists will likely ask how we are going to pay for this? A wealth tax and preventing tax evasion could ensure the wealthiest pay more to society. It could also be funded through borrowing, governments and central banks like the Bank of England could print money, and borrow at ultra-low interest rates. Interesting new economic thinking is occurring in the US around Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). MMT differs radically from conventional economics. It proposes governments that control their own currency can spend freely, as they can always create more money to pay off debts in their own currency.

One thing is clear on both sides of the Atlantic: Socialists, Democrats and other progressives need bold practical ideas like the foundational economy and a job guarantee to counteract regressive right-wing opportunists. A stronger policy position to help working people and the unemployed is needed in an era of neoliberalism/financialisation, corporate plutocracy, austerity, Trump, Brexit, and now Covid-19.

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