Shock! Gig Economy Is Not The Only Show In Town


The future workforce of Britain – where the jobs of the future are  going to be and what they are like – has been spotlighted by new research. And the findings will surprise you.

The Changing World of Work, by NIESR’s Jonny Runge (edited by Becky Wright), will be premiered at the Unions21 conference tomorrow.  In a landscape over-populated by talk of robotics, artificial intelligence and the use of technology, one universal truth is that certain industries will rise, and others will begin or continue their descent in the labour market.

This gives three inescapable questions:

  • Where will workers of the near future be?
  • How will they be represented at work?
  • What changes will we need to make in light of the future of work?

For trade unions, the questions are all the more pressing – existential really, given the low levels of union membership amongst the young and also amongst certain sectors pf the economy – retail, hospitality, and social care – especially when the predominant form of employment is precarious.

There are challenges to an “establishment” view that unions are technophobes and laggards when it comes to connecting with the so-called “Young Core Workers”. There is excellent work being done by the TUC and the Good Innovations outfit.  But a key point of the new research is that crucial as it is, we should not put all our eggs in the one Gig economy basket.

This is interesting and innovative territory, and it seems to me to be well-founded.  Runge and Wright have identified and tried to extrapolate  five key  influences on the labour market – demography (growing and ageing population will lead to increase demand/consumption in particular sectors), technology (automation of certain human-only occupations will take place,  but  the extent is arguable), productivity (and what is the post-crash stagnation  become entrenched in the short  to medium term), globalisation (certainly a factor,  but its impact now obscured by resurgent nationalism and protectionism), and changing contractual arrangements of certain services (from, yes,  worker-status contracts (as opposed to employee status), demands  for  a better work-life balance, and  the rise of the “collaborative economy”).

Clearly there is a degree of uncertainty about some of these influences, but using data from the estimable UKCES, Runge and Wright have identified three industries with expected high employment growth – the retail trade (surprised?) hospitality and management services.

Collectively, these three sectors will see employment growth by an estimated 900,000 jobs in the period to 2024, accounting for half of all the new jobs in the UK economy is this period.  There is a noticeable decline in self-employment, a growth in those in workers in these sectors with at least a first degree, and  no dramatic change in the balance between part-time and full-time working, or between percentages of men and women employed.

Three “ones to watch” are also suggested – Construction, Social Work and Information Technology, who between them are projected to add over 600,000 jobs between now and 2024.

The report concludes with a brief over view of UKCES employment projections for over 70 industries, with a preliminary view on the likely impact of Brexit.

From the perspective or worker representation and employee voice, this analysis – with its detailed demographic, hours-worked and occupational breakdown – is very helpful indeed.  The snapshots of the level of  union membership and collective bargaining  give grounds for cautions optimism  that there is a platform for trade union growth in each sector.

Runge and Wright give us the answer to the first of our three questions, and paint a vivid picture of the dynamics and challenges of union organising in these sectors.

Whether it is the overall constructive engagement with workforces that is part of the Taylor review, or practical questions of the extent to which unions focus on particular sectors, geographies and roles, the Changing World of Work is an important contribution.

The Changing World of Work can be downloaded here.

Full disclosure:  I am a board member of Unions21, on whose website this piece also appears

“Access Denied” to Workplace Mental Health?


(photocredit: Dimitri Otis/Getty Images)

In my 30 years of working in employee relations, I have seen mental health relentlessly climb the ladder of workplace issues. Historically, poor, even abusive, performance management and intense economic challenges have contributed significantly.

But levels of literacy in this area have also increased, so now employees, workers and employers at least have the words to start necessary, difficulty and often suppressed discussions.

Organisations such as Samaritans, MIND, SANE and See Me in Scotland and Papyrus for younger people, have been campaigning on this for years, but it is good see the relatively new groups such as Minds@Work join the fray.

There has been a new push by Geoff McDonald’s outfit, and it’s “USP” in a well populated space is its foundation on the direct experiences of its founder.  Full marks for McDonald for having the strength-in-depth to turn a crisis into something positive – and to continue to promote its good cause personally.

And I have to say I like  M@W’s mantra – “We want to create mentally and emotionally healthy and human workplaces where individuals can flourish and organisations prosper”.  This really does push all the right buttons: productive enterprises are those that nurture individuals and understand we are dealing with people not machines.

But the transition into reality is fraught with difficulties. Let’s start with the two steadfast obstacles of access and affordability. With all respect to McDonald,  his own  story, as  recently  recapped in the  Daily Telegraph, seems to be an illustration of someone  who  can afford to dramatically alter his working (and presumably salary) arrangements.  Seniority arguably gives greater access to or understanding of what remedies and help are available. It has been long-held that more junior employees will typically have less control over their working lives, and those who are workers in the gig economy have even less.

In companies who have committed themselves to doing more on mental health, often at the behest of the unions who represent their staff,(for example, the CWU) getting the message across can be difficult.  Take junior and middle management in a large company in a competitive sector – simultaneously you need to look after the wellbeing of your direct reports, whilst hitting those KPIs.  Both are stated goals of the company, neither takes account of each other.

Even in McDonald’s own plight seems not to have dented the prevailing idea that some roles are – and can only be – all-consuming.  If you can’t manage to do it all, then that is something for you to deal with, not the firm.

Will companies ever, truly be able to both prosper and have those “healthy human workplaces”?  This is a potential dividend from increased automation-driven productivity, and it is good to see the debate on “6 hour days” moving from “if” to “how”.  But set against that is the seemingly unstoppable rise of precarious forms of employment. Uber drivers, session musicians and Deliveroo couriers will, I am sure, secure “worker” status, but if companies are not willing to make the commitment of offering a contract of employment, then expecting investment in mental and emotional health seems far-fetched.

And of course all this takes place against the backdrop of what is accepted as inadequate mental health provision in society as a whole and for the young especially.  So the “safety net” if ever there was one, certainly is in very poor repair.

It seems to me that as well as proper, robust funding of mental health services, business needs to square the circle of wanting to take mental health seriously, whilst at the same time delivering operational success. At the moment these seem often contradictory, but they surely do not need to be.  The more the issue is brought into the mainstream – by government, unions, campaign groups – the greater the capacity and likelihood for action.

In the long run, I would argue that M@W is not ambitious enough. Individuals will only really flourish and organisations will only truly prosper in mentally and emotionally healthy and human workplaces.  Business needs to truly understand that.

Driverless Cars and Delivery Drones – What is the Future of Work?


2017 is not yet a week old and already there have been more “machines replace humans” than you can count. Two just today – jobs disappearing and AI rampant. The future of work is clearly going to be one of this year’s Big Things.

What will this world, with its driverless cars and delivery drones look like? What will it be like?  No jobs means no employment means no workers means no wages – means no spending.  Hence the emergence of ideas likes Universal Basic Income (UBI) and its evolution off the page and into peoples’ pockets].  How ironic that arguably a most progressive programme of state aid – free money – has been borne out of the projected ossification of capitalism!   (But Keynes himself would probably smile and say “told you so”. State intervention has often been part of capitalistic survival, but just not quite like this.)

It is unsurprising that redistribution so that more people work less has also become attractive.  The so-called Swedish Six Hour Day (though not so attractive that the Swedish TUC or the Ministry of Labour backed the concept) which has now run into some controversy.  The idea is reduced hours improves productivity and therefore avoids lower wages. This makes sense to me, and you could argue that employment paradigms  in, for example, Denmark,  place value on workers not being knackered at the end of their shift, burnt-out at a relatively  young age, alienated from their employer – and often from their families  because of a long-hours culture.

UK unions such as the CWU have picked this up and, especially in a world where work is in short supply, what’s not to love?

Well quite a bit as it happens. More people in the UK say they are under-employed or have multiple jobs than ever before. These are the in-work poor, where depressed or persistently low levels of disposable income have create relentless destructive pressure.

So what explains the  gaps between those willing to embrace – at least on a trial basis –  a 6 hour day,  or the Danish working arrangements described by Helen Russell,- and the UK situation, where similar ideas seem totally untenable.

The issue surely is about control.  A deregulated labour market suggests that control – or should we say “management” – of employment is impossible.  On an individual basis, with union density depressed, employment protection legislation greatly diluted or inaccessible because of prohibitive pricing, workers are unable to exert meaningful influence over their circumstances.  At a macro level, there is no sympathetic compelling or dominant national narrative about work and its relationship with the rest of life and society. This is not the case in all countries –such as Denmark, Sweden and France.

The issues are not new.  In the early 1800s, the Luddites broke up the looms in defence of their jobs.  The battle for this future was anticipated nearly 50 years ago in books such as “The Collapse of Work” and “The Leisure Shock” by forward–thinkers such as Jenkins and Sherman. Why the intensity of the debate now?

I think it is because of two factors:  First the potential of current automation is almost limitless, and even raises existential issues about the survival of our species!  That’s bound to  lead to some discussion!

Second,   if we look at what jobs will be prevalent in the near-future; we see a steep increase in health and social care.  These are frequently the jobs that are not currently highly regarded in society. This makes us, collectively, very nervy because there is no coherent, comprehensive plan in place for high quality universal care of our ageing population.

Even though you might think it is in their own best interests, the government seems exceptionally unlikely to intervene in the labour market to the extent necessary to ensure that the future of work is one which is effective for everyone.  That’s a chilling thought, but the debate will not go away (as today’s stories demonstrate).  Political power is also shifting somewhat, especially in the context of devolution. So perhaps there is some scope for hoping that ideas like short working days, UBI, and setting higher standards below which workers cannot fall, will have the opportunity to prove themselves before it is too late.


Ask More Questions – A New Year’s Resolution to Keep

My 50 year old colleague, dissatisfied with his life, sits heavily down before me. “I’m not really happy,” he says. Stating the obvious.

“Well tell me,” I say, “what do you enjoy doing?”.  He comes back to me straight-away: “Reading. I like to read books.”

“And how many books do you read, “ I ask, “in a year”.

A little less fast this time. “Four” he says, “or five.”

I do the maths for him. 30 more active years? Let’s be optimistic and say 40. Only time to read 200 more books. Before you die.

It’s a light-bulb, jaw-drop , wide-eye moment. He didn’t need to say a thing. And he quit his job the next day.

Hearing this made me think about me. Have I only got 200 books’ worth left in me? Which ones should I pick? How should I choose? I mean some really good books are so long. Or so boring.  Or both. What about books that haven’t yet been written?

Unease was now accelerating towards mild panic. In my mind I was on my deathbed,  a huge stack of books on the table beside me. A nurse (why? Am I in hospital? Am I sick? ) approaches.  I see it is no angel of mercy but the Grim Reaper himself. He taps a wristwatch. Time to go. No! No!  There is all this to read! Have pity.

I should have thought about this sooner, I rue, so much sooner. But such is the pointlessness of 20/20 hindsight.

Ok,  so you might want to try and read a bit faster. Or devote just a little more time to it.   Or have your next must-read volume lined up well in advance.  But it doesn’t have to be about books.  It could be visiting every football ground in the country.  Or swimming the channel.  Whatever floats your boat. And finding out what that is can be the biggest thing of all.

The moral, if there is one, of this tale is not to regret what you can’t change. Nor is it the need to prepare and plan to meet big, inevitable challenges.  It is, surely, that the things in life with the biggest scare and greatest pleasure are not answers, but the questions that lead to them.

“Judge a man by his questions, rather than his answers”  said Voltaire. A moniker for a new year’s resolution if ever there was one.

Thanks to Katie Driver of The Thinking Alliance for her help in preparing this piece.

Signing Off, Signing In…..

“Bloody hell – you’ve been doing your job longer than I’ve been on the planet.”  That was the response from one of our young activists when I answered his question on my service record.

That made me think.  And then a schooldays friend of mine died. It happens, of course. And as you get older, chances are it happens more frequently.  But it made me reflect that I wanted to spend more time with those closest to me whilst I can.

So, after 27 years at the CWU, and 30 as a national trade union officer,  I will be moving on to other things in the new year.

The union is in a phase of great change – so I’ve taken an opportunity, seized the moment, made the leap (or possibly jumped out of an aeroplane with no parachute) to do something different, to write a new chapter, sing a new song (perhaps even learning to sing before trying this), and do my best to die (though not for many many years) with as few regrets as possible.

Am I quitting the struggle, giving up the fight, selling the jersey?  Not a chance:  Not whilst those “five giant evils” of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness are still enemies to be defeated.

It is a privilege to represent our members. To be trusted by them to negotiate on their behalf individually or collectively.  To be part of a great progressive movement for change.  I am still part of that movement. You can physically take me out of the union, but you can’t take the union out of my soul!

So to all my friends, colleagues, comrades and acquaintances, thanks for the company, counsel, your support, understanding, inspiration and friendship over the years. This chapter is now closing, but this is not me signing off – rather signing in for a whole load of new adventures.

Opportunity visits the prepared mind” someone once said to me – and I’m ready for any eventuality.

This Picture is Worth a Thousand Words


A picture is worth a thousand words? No – this one is worth far more. This is the CWU’s newly elected National Youth Committee. As most readers know, my day job is working for the Communications Workers’ Union, so I say this with feeling: No pressure ladies and gents, but the future of the union lies with you.

This is not hyperbole. The average age of a CWU branch secretary is 53-and-a-half.  The average age of all CWU reps is 50.  “Young” for us is 29 and under.  They are the  leadership  of not just 18,000 of their fellow young members,  but  also  the  agents of  change,  the next generation,  the key ingredient  that  will take us forward.

We represent people in posts, telecoms financial and business services sectors.  And we are good at what we do.  Our membership density in the larger employers we work with is touching or over 90%.  For the private sector, with membership levels across the whole economy of around 16%, this is astonishing.

If you look at our core sectors,   we  surpass the  national average across private and public employers of  26%  trade union  density – we represent  around 30%  of all telecoms  workers and 50% of  all postal and courier sector employees1.

And we recruit. 12,000 new members in a year – 5,500 of them young workers.

So the future is not only in good hands but looking secure – right?


CWU membership has fallen from a peak of nearly 300,000 in 1998 to just over 190,000 now.  One employer, the GPO,   has now become dozens.  There are over 7 thousand telcos in the UK1.  The sectors in which we organise are increasingly and intensely competitive.  Theresa May  may talk  “one nation”  politics  but  the party which she leads rammed through the  ultra-hostile Trade Union Act – this is a government that can fairly  be described as hating who we are and what we do.

And recruitment? It is a fantastic achievement to   bring in so many new members each year.  But we lose still more.  And many new members are part-timers and those who leave are full timers. So money is tight. But incoming young members did exceed young leavers by nearly 3,000 last year.

So to hear a room full of young members (and those pictured necessarily exclude colleagues who  just couldn’t make the meeting) talk  about  their  experiences  at work and of the union,  about  how and why  they became more involved,  about the personal  struggles and  bad management   they already  have had to  deal with,  about their  abiding  commitment to workplace respect and democracy, decent  jobs,   wanting  to  make change  happen at work and in society,  is just the best  thing.

And of course they are not alone. Despite everything, there are still 6 million trade unionists in the UK, the country’s largest social movement by far. And the “union premium” is shown in higher pay and better conditions.

The media attitude to Trade Unions is downright contradictory: derided as irrelevant, unnecessary and marginalised generally, but purveyors of destructive power when we are driven to take strike action. That’s the narrative perpetuated in spite of days lost to industrial action being historically low, the likes of Sports Direct and Philip Green, Citylink and Hermes showing why capitalism can’t be trusted, and trade union campaigns on working time, health and safety, equality  and employment protection being adopted and accepted as the norm.

One thing is for sure: If unions didn’t exist, we would miss them in all sorts of ways we don’t even realise.

And one more thing for sure is that these young reps show we have a bright, hopeful future.

1 “Mapping the Future” (CWU, 2010 and 2015)

This piece also appears on the website of CWUYouth. To Join the CWU, click here



Unpaid Interns – Still with Us, Still an Issue


“Be an intern for us!” opened the email that had plonked into my in-box.  That made me pause – interns had been almost eclipsed in my mind by zero- hour contracts, Sports Direct and other precarious and/or unsavoury employment models .

But you do remember interns?  Or rather remember all the fuss about unpaid internships?  Ringing a bell?  We used to think this was scandalous and shouted loudly about it.  We still do think it’s a scandal, but somehow don’t seem to be so bothered – or are we just fatigued?  Have enough employers woken up smelt the coffee, and paid their interns to blunt to edge of our argument and anger?

Interns are still a big issue in the UK. The Sutton Trust reckons one-third of all internships are still unpaid, yet according to YouGov only 4% of us can afford to do that.  Is the sad truth that  the concept  of  doing unpaid work  to  get  your foot half on the ladder is firmly  embedded in many sectors – and with  so many  other battles to fight and injustices  to right,  it has  fallen off our campaigning agenda.

This is understandable but it is a debate that must not die. Unpaid work was and is and will always be problematic. All most of us have to sell is our labour.  And we need to generate income to live. So a set up that makes unpaid work the unavoidable entry point pulls the rug out from anyone who can’t afford to work for free.

Somehow this has become a “good thing” – look at what your interns can do for you purrs Business Insider.  Getting paid?  Well, it’s just a choice you make, swaggers Forbes Magazine.

But look again at the excellent briefing material produced by campaign group Intern Aware, the TUC and National Union of Students.  Employers still are prone to not pay interns but treat them as workers (a definite no-no to be exposed), and the reasons to pay interns are overwhelming, including the notional cost to graduates.

The current legal position  leans more towards the Forbes’ view of the world, than mine.  Yes, there are paid internships  across a range of sectors, but there is still no standard template.  Size of employer does not seems to be the determining factor – small London based charities such as the Point of Care Foundation  (POCF) seemed to decide that if  there were to be internships, then they would darn well be paid. However, creative outfits like Bombus – whose email grabbed my attention – didn’t. So I did a little digging.

The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that size does matter. POCF have 12 employees – Bombus only 6.  It is arguable that the affordability of paid internships is determined in the space between them – but therefore inarguable that larger employers could and should pay their interns.

But given just how small Bombus is – net assets of scarcely more than £100k, – surely their unpaid internships would prove to be nothing more than a ruse to increase resource for free? “ In terms of studio production time and administration it’s actually quite a costly exercise for a small company such as ours. Our interns do not arrive in the first week equipped with the level of quality in their hand-making skills to be able to offer ‘labour’ to us,” said a company spokeswoman.

“We advertise the intern scheme locally only for obvious, practical reasons. Yes, we post it on our social media and our blog but effectively, the intention of that is to give our customers and users an insight into our company and how we operate. Our studio is in a rural location, not served by any public transport. All transport costs are reimbursed in full to our interns.

Our intern scheme is there to support especially local design students and graduates who are often required to fulfil a curriculum module of workplace experience. We offer a hands-on, highly practical and fully-mentored 2 week internship, involving all aspects of our design and production methods, potentially giving them valuable skills to include on their CV for their future career paths.

And yes, often we do ask some interns to join us on a fully-paid position on either a part-time, full-time or temporary basis, depending on the company’s requirements at that time.”

It seems to me that Bombus make an important point well.  It’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it. A good quality internship consists much more than money, and the cost employers are prepared to bear is found not just in pay rates.

But this is an extremely limited illustration. And the candid nature of their response to my enquiries shows a self-confidence that I often find lacking in business.  There is a clear agenda for government here  – to provide a platform of employment standards that all employers are expected and supported to meet, to ensure young adults leave school with the right skills and knowledge, to ensure that there are enough routes into the labour market so that local internships don’t become a Hobson’s Choice with their quality  being a matter of  discretion not obligation.

That’s surely all common sense isn’t it?