Tuesday, 11 July 2017

One step forward, one step back, one to the side – The Taylor Review into employment practices

Pierre Bourdieu once warned that television encourages ‘fast-thinking’, a form of commentary that is antithetical to the slow rigorous analyses in which academics and intellectuals should engage. Social media create an even stronger incentive to join public debates as early as possible, to avoid the risk of only contributing when attention has already shifted to another topic.

The publication today of the much awaited Taylor Review into ‘Employment Practices in the Modern Economy strongly illustrates this point, with a flurry of commentary published shortly after (or even before) the report has become available. These comments (including obviously this one) inevitably have a preliminary character; they ought to be confirmed, adjusted or refuted once the dust has settled and a clearer picture of the review and especially its material impact on working conditions in Britain emerges. And yet a few points already are visible, like the contours of a skyline on the horizon. It seems the Taylor Review is marked by multiple ambivalences that speak against a simplistic response of either praising or dismissing it swiftly:

First, the review is, from a political perspective, both current and dated. It is current because it rightly acknowledges and puts at the centre of public debate (at least for a moment) the crucial question of employment conditions - even if the rhetoric of the report itself attempts to mitigate against the impression of a profound change, for example by arguing that levels of full-time standard employment remain on a high level of 60% (p.24), or by stressing that the apparent rise in ‘zero hours contracts’ may be primarily due to an “improved recognition” of this employment type (p.25).

Notwithstanding, the continuous degradation of employment conditions has been one of the key pillars of neoliberal global capitalism, with its intrinsic tendency to transfer risks and exposure to the volatility of markets to individual workers and employees, in order to boost the profitability of businesses and the competitiveness of corporations as well as national economies. And while this economic model staggers on despite its apparent instability, its legitimacy has arguably been eroded substantially at latest since the ‘crisis’ of 2007 – to the point that addressing the question of employment conditions no longer is ‘only’ a matter of social justice and economic sustainability, but also of maintaining a democratic political order.

At the same time, the report is already somehow dated, as it was commissioned with political conditions in mind that failed to materialise. When Theresa May launched the review in October 2016, the aim was to underpin the Prime Minister’s first speech in office, in which tackling social divisions and injustices to help those who “just about manage” were elevated to major policy priorities. This attempt to redefine the orientation of the Conservative Party was partly built on the assumption that, due to the weakness of the Labour Party (and social democracy in general), a realignment of British politics in favour of the political right was possible. With the outcome of the latest general election, May’s ensuing weakness as Tory leader and Prime Minister, and the increased strength of Labour, the political context of the Taylor Review is largely different. It hence remains to be seen to what extent its recommendations can be implemented against the more extreme ‘small government’ faction within the Conservative Party and an emboldened Labour Party that is likely to oppose the review’s findings as ‘too little, too late’.

Secondly, the recommendations are both substantial and inconsequential. They are substantial in light of the acknowledgement that the regulatory framework for the labour market requires adjustments to restrict the ability of employers who exploit non-standard forms of employment such as ‘zero hours contracts’, agency work or bogus self-employment to act as they please - by imposing, for example, a more stringent test to determine the employment status of a person (p.35), and by strengthening the enforcement of existing rules by facilitating access to employment tribunals to assess a person’s employment status (p.62). All which is going against the trend of ever increasing ‘flexibility’ of employment. The report furthermore endorses a comprehensive understanding of ‘quality work’ (p.12-15), and underlines that ‘flexibility’ can be imposed by employers without granting reciprocal benefits (p.43).

While it can indeed be argued, like trade unions have done, that the creation of the new status of ‘dependent contractors’ to replace the current category of ‘workers’ (p. 35) simply replaces one type of employment status with restricted employment rights by another, the rights that would come with this status would nevertheless represent a small, incremental improvement in social protection of people who are currently regarded incorrectly as self-employed, for example by providing holiday and sickness pay.

This is unsurprisingly far from enough from a progressive point of view, but it seems fair to say that anyone who hoped for more radical conclusions from this review must have misunderstood its political function and remit. The report clearly embraces the current doxa, according to which low levels of labour market regulation are intrinsically positive and are seen as a sign for a dynamic economy (p.17).

However, even from a more benevolent perspective, the review’s findings are also quite inconsequential on the larger scale, as the review operates within an intellectual framework that is partially outdated and that therefore struggles to draw conclusions that can appropriately tackle the question of vulnerable employment. Its overall premise is a combination of light-touch regulation with an increased reliance on negotiations between employers and employees within companies, with a focus on giving employees a stronger ‘voice’ and improving workplace transparency (pp. 52-54). This is encapsulated neatly in Taylor’s fourth principle for fair and decent work, which stresses that “better work is not national regulation but responsible corporate governance, good management and strong employment relations within the organisation” (p.9).

This approach suffers from a fundamental flaw: Although the report recognises power imbalances as a root cause of insecure work (p.26), it ultimately assumes a generally benign balance of power between employers and employees; an equilibrium that simply does not exist for all employees, self-employed and workers, due to the structural constraints of the contemporary British labour market in which especially low-paid workers and employees of the service industry are intrinsically disadvantaged and are unable to exercise the kind of pressure on employers that would be needed to engage in meaningful and fair negotiations.

It is of course undeniable that a substantive share of the self-employed and of ‘gig economy’ workers are able to defend their interests effectively but the role of the law as expression of the general will is to establish shared standards and rules that cannot be undercut and that hence protect the weakest members of society from abuse and hardship, as expressed in the often cited saying by Lacordaire “Between the strong and the weak, between the rich and the poor, between the lord and the slave, it is freedom which oppresses and the law which sets free.” By stressing that the existing employment “works well and is flexible enough to deal with new ways of working”, and that it is merely its varied interpretation that causes problems (p.33), the review attempts to foreclose any more far-reaching and radical discussion of labour market flexibility and its social impact.

This problem is illustrated in almost farcical form by the following quote regarding agency workers, on p. 48 of the report (but other similar quotes can be found easily): “The Government should introduce a right to request a direct contract of employment for agency workers who have been placed with the same hirer for 12 months, and an obligation on the hirer to consider the request in a reasonable manner.” All employers using agency workers to cut their wage bill and transfer the volatility of demand onto workers will already shake in their boots.

Having said this, even in the current political context, the report has the potential to stimulate public debates and introduces a number of interesting proposals, notably regarding self-employment (including changes to taxation and national insurance contributions), which merit further more careful study. Despite its overall conservative and incremental orientation, it re-politicises the topic of employment conditions and thus ideally will open up a debate about wage-labour-related problems that for too long have been side-lined.

Enrico Reuter – follow me on Twitter