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Why we can no longer say any job is a good job

The political issues of work are not just employment and low pay; the idea of good work is also gaining political momentum, and should play a big role in policy after 2015.

Job Centre. Photo: Getty
The parties should be figuring out ways to make people want to jump into the world of work. Photo: Getty

Recently, a friend of mine lost his job. He worked for a small, trendy start-up and, along with many other employees, was paid far less than his employers. The business recently folded due to money-mismanagement, pricing of their products and a confused identity. The business also happened not to pay their employees for their last moth of work.

When the employees were given notice that the business would be closing, they were told by one of the business’s founders, who had just arrived in his new sports car. Although the sports car part of this story is perhaps unusual, the rest speaks to the insecure nature of work in modern day Britain. 

A recent poll in the Guardian looked into the anxiety felt by many over the economy. According to the poll, 56 per cent of people said that they believed economic recovery is underway but less than one in five said that they felt that were benefitting from this. Looking into the root causes of economic anxiety, the poll found that 46 per cent of people felt that because of migrant labour undercutting wages, closely followed by 42 per cent who believed the fault lay with "ruthless companies". As for the major worries that people had about working life in Britain, the gap between wages and the cost of living scored highest, followed by fear of redundancy, lack of permanent posts and inadequate pensions amongst many other concerns. Although the cost of living was the top concern, worries around the insecurity of work also ranked highly, which begs the question, how do we tackle issues of the quality of work alongside low pay?

The Labour party is fast approaching its National Policy Forum, where the policy review, led by Jon Cruddas will be presenting their stream of research on work. The policy review recently hosted a symposium where they discussed an ongoing project looking into the world of work with the Smith Institute. The purpose of the research is not just to look at the issue of low pay but also the average and normal experiences of work. More intangible ideas like job satisfaction are being prioritised alongside the more traditional concerns of unemployment, underemployment, low pay and job security.

The Labour party are not the only ones interested in this area of policy The Work Foundation is launching research later in the year into insecurity in the work place. The Green Party also wants to see reforms to the world of work, with their aim to see the UK move closer to the situation of mainland Europe, where the average working week is shorter and where greater emphasis is placed on worker’s rights and low pay is more fervently tackled. This week, the Greens released a statement on the Living Wage Commission, backing the recommendations to the hilt as a means of tackling in-work poverty. This all supports the idea that the political movement toward "good work" is one that is slowly but surely picking up steam.  

Prioritising the quality of work helps to answer the question of what will come after the "cost of living crisis". There is often an assumption politically that any job is better than no job, but as someone once said to me, we used to put young boys up chimneys because labour was so cheap and workers' worth so low. While the coalition government is determined to push people off benefits, Labour should be figuring out ways to make people want to jump into the world of work; the party needs to live up to its namesake and put quality of work front and centre. All we need now is for Ed Miliband to live up to the legacy of his party and put "good work" policies into next year’s manifesto.