Making labour work for all of us

30-second summary

  • How does the EU Working Time Directive align with the freedoms, for good or ill, of the gig economy? There is no natural alignment.
  • In the future, there are likely to be growing numbers of people working without the security of a traditional contract.
  • Governments need to understand how work is changing and frame the working environment so that people, under whatever contract, can protect their livelihood.

11 April, 2003. Now, that’s a date that few – if any – of us will remember. As a 10-year-old growing up in Switzerland, I certainly can’t remember what I was doing. I can say, however, that EU discussions in Brussels were not on my radar. (Thank goodness.)

That date, though, is significant as it marked the start of the EU Working Time Directive, which was introduced, amongst other things, to regulate the amount of time spent at work – no more than 48 hours in seven days for anyone in EU member states. Few rules have had a greater public impact over the years.

The Directive occurred to me during a recent Addison Lee drive in London. The driver, Mike, a friendly man of 65, was interested when he found out that I’d written my master’s thesis on the topic of Uber drivers’ rights in the United States. For his part, Mike insisted that he loved the arrangement he had with his employer – particularly the freedom of working whenever he wanted to, where he wanted to.

So, how is this compatible with not only the EU Directive but also the recent outcry at predatory contracts that are thought to take away all rights from the individual worker, leaving them apparently vulnerable to the market and personal hardship?

What’s the fuss about non-standard work?

The main difference between an independent worker’s contract and a traditional one is the exchange between flexibility and security. Workers that are independently contracted are free to choose when, where and how much they work. In exchange, they accept little to no job security.

In theory, this sounds like an exchange that adults should be able to make. However, the reason these contracts have received so much criticism lately is that they often contradict basic rights such as the right to health care, sick pay or parental leave that workers worldwide have spent decades, if not centuries obtaining.

Non-standard contracts also threaten the basic assumptions on how we work: that we give away the fruits of our labour in exchange for economic security and protection from loss, sickness and adversity. In an economic climate where people increasingly have to choose between not working and working in non-standard work, this is a worrying development.

However, even those who maintain that workers can still opt for standard employment if they wished so, seem to be at a loss. The recent debate surrounding the EU’s Working Time Directive is suggesting that the face of standard employment is changing, too.

The Working Time Directive and dualisation

Recently, a number of voices – including British prime minister Theresa May – have claimed that Brexit may lead to the UK choosing to not comply with the EU’s Directive anymore. Certainly, the mere fact that abandoning it is being seriously thrown around as an idea is very telling of the current trends surrounding work and employment contracts.

What sociologists call ‘labour market dualisation’, the growing divide between well-protected labour market insiders on standard contracts and vulnerable labour market outsiders in precarious work situations, has been steadily growing across the Western world.

Insiders usually work in full-time jobs, enjoy higher levels of labour market protection and are less vulnerable to crises. Labour market outsiders, on the other hand, are unemployed or work in precarious, non-standard employment such as temporary or part-time contracts. They receive lower salaries and levels of benefits, enjoy limited career mobility and responsibilities and run higher risks of unemployment

This “dualisation” is not necessarily detrimental for workers. If employees choose to work atypical jobs to gain a better work-life balance, for example, or use them as stepping stones into standard jobs, labour market flexibility and choice can be healthy for both the economy and workers.

However, in most industrialised societies, the individuals who go into precarious work are easily identifiable from the onset, which points towards a socio-economic divide between insiders and outsiders. There also seems to be limited mobility between the two labour market segments. Marginalised workers have little prospect of being able to switch to standard jobs. In times of crisis, they act as a buffer; being the first to lose employment they protect insiders from labour market risks.

While one could argue that ditching working rights will lead to a decrease in dualisation as the two groups of outsiders and insiders converge, it seems much more likely that some people will succeed in maintaining their secure status, be it by means of education, status or wealth. This means that the real change will be growing numbers of people without the security of a traditional contract.

An era of disruption

The future of work is a hot topic of discussion, with almost everyone agreeing that something is changing. Automation threatens tasks, jobs and whole sectors, formerly secure positions are being outsourced.

We need to adapt to these changes, but also remain vigilant of political voices trying to attack the security measures we have put in place to protect people from the hardship of working life. Changes should be deliberate and well thought-through.

It is very possible that someone like Mike, the Addison Lee driver, a 65-year-old British man living in the UK with its national health system, is perfectly happy to be in flexible work. We should indeed encourage the creation of flexible and part-time work and make sure people can thrive on them. However, we need to make sure we understand who goes into non-standard work and why. The impact of people involuntarily working in precarious situations cannot only be felt by the individual, but by families and society too.

In order to address this important issue, we need to understand how work is changing. With no-one immune from this wave of disruption, governments need to frame the working environment in such a way that people, under whatever contract they are employed, can protect their livelihood and fully participate in modern society.

When you think about it, few policies will have a bigger public impact. Let’s hope it’s a positive one.



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