Good Jobs in the Midlands after COVID

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Professor Tony Dobbins and Professor Anne Green
Birmingham Business School

The Midlands’ labour market is among the most heavily impacted by COVID in the UK, as well as being among the most impacted by Brexit, the 2008 financial crisis and austerity. Data shows that availability of good work is heavily concentrated in London and the South-East of England. Arguably, too many citizens in places like the Midlands have been economically and culturally forgotten, causing extensive working poverty and loss of self-esteem.

To respond to the crisis and ensure a sustainable regional recovery, there is an urgent need for measures enhancing meaningful decent work and an inclusive economy in the Midlands, rather than just increasing quantity of jobs.

For example, attention needs to be focused on creating good jobs in foundational economy and green sectors, as well as improving the quality of existing jobs; for example, by implementing a Job Guarantee scheme, making regions like the Midlands ‘real living wage places’, ensuring security of minimum living hours, and supporting collective employee voice and trade union representation.

There is considerable scope for improving wages and working conditions, and creating better quality working lives, for key workers in the foundational economy. The good work agenda should encompass ‘contributive justice’ and meaningful work (as well as ‘distributive justice’) in a more inclusive ‘moral economy’. This is necessary to rebuild individual and regional self-esteem under a new human-centred ‘social contract’. Extending meaningful work of social value in key worker occupations and sectors can act as a springboard for harnessing human capabilities that sustain human life for the common good. This is linked to Sen’s original Capability Approach, which focuses on the moral significance of individuals’ capability of achieving the kind of lives they have reason to value. A person’s capability to live a good life includes availability of decent work and good working conditions.

There is also a potentially important role for the state nationally and regionally to set the rules for ‘harder’ regulatory standards through public procurement and social licensing requirements that employers have to comply with, such as paying a real living wage and providing adequate training, employee voice, etc. Wales provides an interesting example regarding the recent Public Procurement and Social Partnership law.

There is increasing consensus that the good work agenda for regions like the Midlands cannot be left to market forces. Rather, multi-level whole-system interventions are required by the state, nationally, regionally and locally. Time will tell whether there is much of substance or concrete policy underpinning the UK government’s ‘levelling-up’ and ‘Build Back Better’ agenda. But concerns have been expressed by business groups and others about the decision to drop the Industrial Strategy – regarding its replacement by a more ad hoc approach and related worries about long-term policy planning.

In the resultant national employment policy vacuum, stakeholders in regions like the Midlands are developing their own policy ideas – within the constraints of devolution powers and the centralised state. There are significant regional challenges, including coordination and fragmentation of institutional architecture and activities between local actors in the West and East Midlands and shortcomings in capacity to implement policy. A combination of policies of soft and hard influence is likely to be necessary to deliver good jobs in the Midlands. Possible recommendations include a ‘Midlands Region Social Partnership Council’ to better coordinate policies advancing the decent work agenda across the region.

Many of these research and policy ideas for advancing good work in the English Midlands after COVID were discussed by speakers and participants at a joint Work Inclusivity Research Centre (WIRC) and City-REDI webinar on June 24th 2021. Comparisons were made with other regions and devolved nations that have been implementing Fair Work and Good Business Charters and other associated policy interventions.

The event was organised by Prof. Tony Dobbins (University of Birmingham). The speakers were Prof. Anne Green (University of Birmingham), Lee Barron (TUC Midlands Regional Secretary), and Dr. Jack Cao (Keele University).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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