The spread of precarious work is a political choice. We have to be bold in tackling it

Green co-leader Jonathan Bartley says we must be radical in responding to the gig economy - so that workers don't just survive, but thrive.

Today I supported the country’s first march against precarious work in London. And what a time it is to be discussing insecure work – with the wellbeing of Uber drivers is used as a pawn in a high stakes game between Uber and Transport for London.

The management of Uber has shown a complete disdain for workers’ wellbeing, health, and safety and we’ve reached this juncture because things must change. But Uber is not an isolated example.

Uber is the unacceptable darkness of the gig economy, and its shadow is spreading: we see it in the likes of Deliveroo, McDonald’s, and Sports Direct. It’s promoted even by our universities: only a few months ago I was at the LSE to protest against the precarious working conditions cleaners there are subjected to.

But as the ranks of the dispossessed continue to swell, so too do those who are discontent, disconnected, and dissatisfied. And now the movement to change the economy and to forge a new future is growing – as it must.

Earlier this month I helped my daughter move up to university to start her first year. While it’s exciting for both of us,I am truly worried about the kind of future she faces. 

She wants to teach. But after hearing today about the situation of staff and even lecturers at the University of London, I am under no illusions about this new age of insecurity. When she graduates, even with a degree under her belt, she will be entering a future of grave uncertainty with decent, stable, rewarding jobs at a premium.

It shouldn’t be like this. We shouldn’t have to send our children out in the world knowing that they are on an insecure path. We can and we will build our own road that leads to a much brighter future.

We should be clear what’s going on here. We’ve arrived where we have not through chance or bad luck but because the people in charge like it this way. Low wages means high profits. Precarious work means employees desperate for work. Worthless contracts mean no legal responsibilities.

Uber is the tip of a very big iceberg that threatens to sink our country. The government has wilfully allowed this to happen. They’ve failed to enforce a real living wage, and having commissioned a review of the flexible economy we’ve seen in response as much substance as a Donald Trump tweet.

This week and next you will see politicians gather in conference halls across the country and speak platitudes about creating a strong and stable economy. However, we must ask who the economy is for.  And then we must transfer power to those people.

A shift in power is the key to redistributing wealth and building the new economy.

We need to think big and bold. We need to look at how we can unionise in new ways to support independent workers, create stability in a world that seems inherently unstable and ensure a balance between work and family life. 

We need to look in new ways at how workers can own and receive the benefits of the work they do, how local economies can be revitalised and how work can do more than just put food on the table – it should warm our hearts and reward our passions too. A world in which we won’t all just survive, but thrive.

Jonathan Bartley is co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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One Response to “The spread of precarious work is a political choice. We have to be bold in tackling it”

  1. David Coats

    Four quick points. First, there is no doubt that some people who work in the “gig economy” are exploited. But this is a result of “bogus self-employment” and an absence of the wherewithal to enforce existing legal rights – that’s what the tribunal judgment in the Uber case was all about. Second 80% of people at work have permanent employee jobs and this has scarcely changed over the last 30 years. There is a lot of exploitation at the margins but that is, by definition, marginal to the concerns of the majority. Third, it’s true that self-employment has risen since the global financial crisis but at 15% of total employment is only 3% higher than in 1986. Not a transformational change. Fourth, if the left wants to develop a narrative about work then this must be just as relevant to those in the mainstream who, according to high quality studies, already have a pretty rotten time – unfair treatment, stagnant rather than low pay, intrusive performance management systems, declining trust in managers, an absence of voice to influence their employer’s decisions. Making progress demands solidarity rather than altruistic gestures. Unless the left has a story that appeals to most people at work then any new settlement for those on the margins will be weak and unstable.

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