11 September 2018

We don’t need trade unions to get to a four-day week


Frances O’Grady has made a speech to the TUC calling for the gains from new technology to be used to create a four-day week and higher pay all round.

It’s good that key trade unionists are beginning to think about the future rather than just trying to insist that train doors should be opened by guards rather than drivers. But what to make of their ideas?

A positive is that the TUC researchers providing Ms O’Grady’s rhetorical ammunition are optimistic that technology will not destroy jobs. There is no talk here of ‘robot taxes’ of the kind Jeremy Corbyn seems to favour, or other Luddite moves to slow down technical progress. The emphasis is rather on a belief that technology is currently intensifying work, generating longer effective working hours and greater stress, and that this should be changed.

There is also a concern that pay is not rising fast enough and that the benefits of new technology will largely go to people like Jeff Bezos, whose Amazon warehouses are castigated for particularly harsh working conditions. Other employers are accused of making hours unpredictable through zero-hours contracts and a return to piece-work in the gig economy.

These concerns are exaggerated. Hours worked in the UK are not obviously high by international standards, and for full-time workers they have been falling for some time. This country is unusual in offering a wide variety of employment hours which suits most workers. For example, a large majority of part-time workers questioned in the Labour Force Survey are happy with the hours they work, unlike part-timers in most continental European countries.

Zero-hours workers appear on some indicators to be happier than workers on fixed-hours contracts. Even people working very long hours appear mainly to have chosen to do so because of their personal preferences, and tend to be rewarded for doing so. Few do so for long periods.

The TUC’s own survey finding, that many full-time workers would welcome a four-day week with no loss of pay, is the least surprising news I’ve read this year. But this is not on offer, or likely to be in the foreseeable future. In any case I suspect that workers who achieved this happy result would probably take on extra work, like the million-plus workers who currently have a second job.

As for stress, this is inevitably subjective, but the evidence doesn’t obviously support the view that stress is increasing. The number of working days lost through stress has been falling, not rising, according to the Office of National Statistics.

The slow growth in median pay may be worrying, but is partly a statistical artefact resulting from the changing composition of the workforce. There doesn’t seem to be any trend for new jobs to be disproportionately poorly paid. If anything, the evidence goes the other way. In the last decade the proportion of employment in the three top-paying occupational categories rose from 42% to 45%.

The TUC’s positive take on new technology endorses the government’s view that digital technology will account for the bulk of new jobs. However this is far from clear. If we look at jobs created in the last decade, only a minority of them seem to be clearly related to new technology. Many are in creative fields, many in social and physical care, many in entertainment and leisure. Some are ancient technologies – tattooing, for heaven’s sake – given a new lease of life by changing tastes. One feature is that they are often in small-to-medium businesses rather than the big workplaces which dominate union thinking.

The TUC is calling for an unprecedented trade union revival – a view pushed by Ms O’Grady on the IPPR’s Economic Justice Commission, which last week called for 50% of the workforce to be unionised by 2030.  But this is unlikely unless the union movement properly comes to terms with the changing nature of work.

It is easy to paint Jeff Bezos as a stage villain, ignoring the considerable gains in cost and convenience which his company has brought to consumers. But even if he were as bad as he’s painted, huge warehouses populated by poorly paid, exhausted workers are not the wave of the future. The employment mosaic of the 21st century covers so many different types of workers, types of job and types of workplace that no simple formula encapsulates what people want from work.

A four-day week may suit some, perhaps many, but not if it is imposed by law or union power. Artificial restrictions on the working week have not been a huge success in France, and big increases in the minimum wage (another TUC/IPPR demand) would threaten jobs.

Trade unions have a future, but it is more likely to be in rediscovering their Friendly Society origins and building up self-help networks for freelancers, education and training, offering insurance and pension schemes, and helping with the inevitable legal problems associated with work. It will not be in making one-size-fits all demands.

Len Shackleton is Editorial Research Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs