The left-wing case for a flexible labour market

Labour market flexibility, if harnessed properly, can be a force for individual and collective good, says Gillian Econopouly.

The economic tumult of the last several years has profoundly shaken the UK and its workforce. The public has witnessed bailouts of major banks, the disappearance of much-loved brands from the British high street and what feels like an unending string of financial collapses and high-level resignations in major organisations, from the media to professional services to public sector bodies like the police. 

Headlines aside, on an individual level, thousands of UK workers have faced redundancy, seen household incomes squeezed by several years of pay freezes or even cuts, or simply held onto jobs they would prefer to move on from but are too nervous to leave, given the economic climate.  

It is no wonder that parties on all sides of the debate are desperately seeking growth wherever it can be found.

But however grim the latest GDP figures, this troubling state of affairs does create an opportunity – and an imperative – to look closely at what we are already good at, and develop this further to the benefit of the entire country. 

And something we should recognise more explicitly as a strength is our flexibility. 

Although as a country we feel pretty battered and bruised in economic terms, the UK’s labour market has actually fared much better than most of our European counterparts in recent years. One reason is because we have a wider variety of ways for people to access work and remain active in the labour market, rather than becoming inactive and losing their skills and confidence in the process. 

There are also more options for employers to take people on and maintain those jobs. According to the CBI, some 83 per cent of employers believe the UK’s labour market flexibility helped stem job losses in the recession, and more than a third of employers used flexible options to keep their firms going. In fact, the OECD employment outlook also showed that UK employment fell much less than expected given the drop in GDP.

So there are advantages to flexibility, but the left has often been hesitant to discuss the subject candidly due to fears of creating a race to the bottom or the erosion of hard-won workers’ rights. These are important concerns and require careful consideration. But we must engage productively with the flexibility debate so it can be properly managed to yield benefits at both the individual and macro level. 

The left’s vision of a successful labour market has traditionally focused around employment – permanent jobs and a fixed workforce. And unless it occurs inside of an employment relationship, we have shied away from talking too much about flexibility, as it has sometimes become almost synonymous with insecurity or worse, the exploitation of vulnerable workers. There is a similar habit when it comes to people working for themselves. Often we associate the words "false" or "forced" with the term "self-employment", thus casting the entire concept into a negative light. 

What has been missing from the debate until now is a willingness to take apart the wider concept of flexibility: to consider its component parts and understand which of those offers the best combination of benefits for the individual and wider economic growth. We need a more nuanced understanding of what labour market flexibility can and does mean.

There is clearly a world of difference between the types of flexibility at different ends of the labour market. It makes little sense to compartmentalise highly-skilled freelancers who actively choose self-employment with low-skilled workers who are, for example, instructed to set up as "self-employed" yet do the same job as their full-time, employed and unionised colleagues. The two share only the same label – not the same labour market profile or characteristics. 

There is no room for exploitation of individuals in a modern, well-functioning UK labour market, through forced self-employment or any other means. And whilst there will unfortunately always be some companies who attempt to take advantage of the system, the answer to this is robust enforcement, not doing away with other types of flexibility. 

Labour market flexibility, if harnessed properly, can be a force for individual and collective good. We must use it to help those who want a permanent job to secure one; and understand that particularly among higher-skilled workers, self-employment can be a positive choice which helps businesses to grow. 

And we must recognise that whilst many do, it’s no longer every worker that wants a full-time, permanent job: the labour market has moved on, and so must we. 

This piece was originally published in the Fabians pamphlet New Forms of Work, available today.

Self-empolyment is more than just blogging in your pants and eating lots of biscuits. Photograph: Getty Images

Gillian Econopouly is the former Head of Policy at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation.

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A year in my life as a Brexit bargaining chip

After Brexit, like many other EU citizens in Britain, I spent a year not knowing what my future held. Here's what that was like.

I moved back to the UK in January 2016. I like to say “move back”, because that’s how it feels – I loved living in London so much during my Erasmus year that I always intended to come work here after graduation. 

I am French, and a journalist, and live in north London. I refer to the UK as “home”. By all appearances, in January 2016 I am part of what budding Brexiteers call the “liberal elite”, even though I rent a single room and my most expensive possession after my laptop is a teapot.

But by June, I have been given a new label. I am now one of the 3 million “EU citizens in the UK”. As Britain heads toward turbulent negotiations to leave the European Union, following a referendum in which I did not have a vote, I have become a “bargaining chip”. 

This is my account of that year.

April 2016

Moving back includes chores such as getting a UK phone number, a National Insurance number and opening a bank account – three tasks that go even smoother that I thought they would. For the bank account, I have been advised to go to Lloyds Bank, which makes it “easy for Europeans”. (A thread on Twitter recently proved it also is more inclined to help refugees than other banks.)

I also eagerly register to vote – another right of mine in the UK under EU rules, for local and European elections. And I am excited: I will have a vote in the London mayoral election.

I closely follow the referendum campaign. “Vote Remain” signs and stickers are omnipresent in my  neighbourhood.  I feel reassured. So do the other EU nationals quietly passing me in the street. “I don't recall seeing any Leave Campaign. It made me think it would be an easy win,” echoes Tiago Gomes, 27, a Portuguese musician.

In the pub, I get into a testy exchange with an acquaintance who holds French and British passports and is proudly campaigning for Leave. I struggle to understand why. Maybe, just like Ukip leader Nigel Farage, he knows he has a way out, if it all goes to shit.

Worried that people could wrongly see me as a Brexiteer because of my Union Jack Converses, I put a “I’m IN” sticker on each roundel.

May 2016

I vote in the London mayoral election. I have voted many times in France, but this is different – I am almost a Brit! I even take a happy selfie with my polling card, like a proud 18 year-old.

This turns out to be the only UK election I will ever have a vote in, as a friend will note a few months later.

June 2016

Jo Cox MP is murdered on the streets of her constituency. I report on the murder all afternoon and when I get the tube home, I feel shaken. A Leave supporter enters the tube carriage with an England flag. I want to ask him: "Do you even know what happened?" But I say nothing.

The violent turn taken by the campaign is felt in London, too. Samir Dwesar, a 27-year-old parliamentary assistant, remembers the abuse he suffered while campaigning for Remain: “I was called a p**i, and told to go back to ‘your f’ing country'.” Samir is British and has lived all his life in Croydon, South London.

Yet I am hopeful on 23 June 2016. I blow up “I’m IN” balloons, taste EU referendum cupcakes from my local bakery. I’m living history.

And it is history. I doubt anyone in Britain, and especially the country’s EU citizens, will forget the nightmarish morning of 24 June 2016. My heart sinks as I read the BBC news alert informing me I am no longer home – not really. On my wall, a poster of the Private Eye cover “What Britain will look like after Brexit”, which I found hilarious in April, looks like a doomed omen.

The mood is low among all Europeans. For Nassia Matsa, 27, a Greek woman from Athens who has lived in London for 9 years, it is even worse: 24 June marks her birthday. “Nigel and Boris ruined my birthday,” she says.

At least in London we are not alone. I discover many Brits identify as European. When I finally leave my house, my neighbourhood is still plastered IN signs and EU flags. “I found myself offering support to my British friends,” says Matsa. “Were talking about Brexit with an Italian, Swiss, Croatian, French and me, and all of us Europeans were comforting a Londoner who was ready to cry.”

July-August 2016

I go to France for a summer holiday. Everyone keeps asking what my situation will be in the UK after Brexit. My answer is always the same, and still hasn’t changed: I have no idea. My dad spends months repeating that Brexit will not happen: “They’ll realise it’s a mistake.” (They don’t.)

Bad adverts with Brexit puns bloom on the Tube. "We're Out," proclaims one for a city lifestyle app. I don’t laugh. But at least I don't have any Facebook friend boasting about Brexit. Mikael David Levin, a 24-year-old Italian who has lived in London for 16 years, does. "Their statuses frustrate and irritate me," he says. "They do not know how 'lucky' they are to be born in the UK."

After David Cameron’s resignation, the Tory leadership election and Theresa May’s premiership, the discussion focuses on when to pull the trigger, and what to do with people like us in the meantime. We are now, officially, bargaining chips.

September 2016

I start flying with my passport when I visit my family in France, even though I know my French ID is still valid until Britain officially leaves. At Stansted airport, the limited life expectancy of the “EU only” line makes me gloomy. Alex Roszkowski, a 27-year-old Polish-American who has lived in London for a year and a half, tells me he may now carry both his passports on every trip, as well as “copies of [his] lease, numerous old envelopes with [his] name and address, [his] business card".

Those EU citizens arriving in the UK have surreal experiences too. Joseph Sotinel, 28, who moved to London from Paris in September, encounters a bank official, who tells him: “Thanks for coming to the UK, you are still welcome no matter what.”

“It was as if I had done something heroic,” he says. “It was absurd.”

October 2016

Registering all EU citizens in the UK could take 140 years, according to a cheery statistic.

We are seeking an early deal to secure the rights of EU citizens, says the British government. Companies employing EU workers must provide a list of their employees, says the British government. Companies employing EU workers won’t have to provide a list of their employees, says the British government. EU citizens will need a “form of ID” in post-Brexit UK, says the British government.  EU citizens must be prepared to leave, says the British government.

Literally no one knows what will happen to EU citizens.

November- December 2016

EU nationals who have decided to apply to permanent residency or British citizenship start receiving letters urging them to leave the country. I fear mine could follow and think about it every time I get post. I read an article advising EU citizens to collect proof of living in the UK. As I am a lodger currently working freelance, I start keeping every single one of my shopping receipts in a box, and consider asking British friends for reference letters.

Matt Bock [unrelated to this journalist], a German freelance renewable energy project manager, worries about how to provide documentation showing he was living in the UK before Brexit too: “I don’t have an employer, I am outside the UK for a large amount of time for work, I am a freelancer largely paid by my own German company, I don’t have private health insurance, I am not married and I haven’t even been here for the prerequisite 5 years.”" He has chosen not to apply to right to remain because his chances of success are "remote", and says he is "ready to leave if need be."

As I, like Matt and many EU citizens, start thinking about moving back home, others rush to move to the UK. Alexandra Ibrová, 26, a Czech PhD student, moves to London on 28 December, worried she could not get a National Insurance number after 15 March. “I was trying to get the appointment before that date because it is actually the only official document that proves that you have been living here before the cut off date,” she says.

January- February 2017

Gina Miller’s legal challenge forces the government’s Brexit bill to go to a vote in Parliament. I am hopeful, for about five minutes, that the Labour MP Harriet Harman’s amendment to secure my rights has got a chance. It doesn’t. I complain about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s three-line whip to my local Labour councillors during their Sunday canvassing. “As a traditionally left-wing voter, I'm more angry with Corbyn's Labour than with the Tories,” echoes Marta Maria Casetti, 39, from Italy, in London since 2006.

March 2017

The day before the triggering or Article 50, the Haringey LibDems send me a letter in “support” of EU nationals. I am now a bargaining chip and a stat on a micro-targeting list.

On 29 March, Theresa May officially begins the Brexit negotiations, even though 2017 is the worst possible time to leave the EU. It has almost been a year that 3 million people living in the UK have been left in limbo.

I don’t own a house or have children at school in the UK. Many EU citizens do – they have built their family life in this country, and now fear they may lose it all overnight.

Adriana Bruni, 44, an Italian who married an Englishman and has lived in Chelmsford for six years, says her family would not exist without the European Union: “From today [29 March], a family like mine will never be formed in the same way again.” Bianca Ford Epskamp, a Dutch national and school governor who has lived Dorset since 2001, adds: “Both my children are born here, go to school here, have made friends. I've always been employed, contributed, paid taxes, do voluntary things. Morally, it’s draining.”

Elena Paolini, 51, an Italian translator married to Brit who has lived in London for 27 years, says she doesn’t believe EU nationals will be deported, but she is concerned about her access to the NHS, pensions or bank accounts. She asks out loud the question that has been floating in all our minds for months: “Will I be considered a second rate citizen?”

As for me, I used to say I wanted to be British. I don't say that any more.

Update on 23 June 2017

Last night, Theresa May told EU leaders in Brussels the UK government would offer the same rights as Britons to EU citizens who arrived "lawfully" before Brexit. I can't help but think that it took a year to guarantee rights me, and the other 3 million, already had and took for granted up until 23 June last year.

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