Insecure workers in Post-Brexit Britain: what does the future hold?

It is a long-standing narrative in academic and public debate that paid work has become more insecure. Arrangements such as fixed-term contracts, temporary working and employment via agencies have proliferated, arguably undermining more traditional employee-employee relationships and the securities they offer.  The expansion of insecure work has long been attributed to big macro-level change. Globalisation, technological change and economic recession have been identified as key drivers, forcing employers to restructure their operations to remain competitive in an increasingly flexible, technologically advanced, global labour market.

Recently, however, debate has taken a more nuanced perspective; arguing that the composition and nature of insecure work varies significantly between individual nation states. This has been identified, at least in part, due to policy decisions made at domestic level, which play an important role in determining the prevalence of different non-standard work arrangements as well as the (in)securities they offer.

Within this context new NIESR research, commissioned by the Trades Union Congress and published today, compares employment practices in the UK with other European countries, to see how the UK ranks both in terms of the composition and impacts of insecure work.

Insecure work has proliferated across Europe but is especially marked in the UK

Our report shows that, while an increase in insecure forms of work can be identified in most European countries, the UK stands out for two main reasons. The first of these relate to the type of insecure work: while many European countries have seen an increase in more ‘traditional’ forms of insecure work, such as fixed-term contracts and low-hours part-time work, the growth of insecure work in the UK has concentrated in the most atypical and precarious working arrangements. This includes bogus self-employment, temporary agency working and zero-hour contacts

The second reason the UK stands out is for its weak worker protections. Within the European landscape the UK historically stands out as a highly deregulated labour market, with comparatively low levels of employment protection for both regular and temporary workers. This, coupled with a lack of much needed new legislation, has meant that an increasing number of insecure workers in the UK find themselves at the periphery, or indeed outside, European standards of labour market regulation and social protection. Insecure workers in the UK are therefore more regularly deprived of stability and consistent earnings compared to the rest of Europe, as well as lacking crucial rights such as holiday pay, sick pay, and protections against unfair dismissal through labour market regulations and collective agreements.

So, what does the future hold for insecure workers in Britain? In the lead up to the triggering of Article 50, the UK government made a firm commitment to protecting the rights of British workers; pledging to translate European law that seeks to prevent exploitation and combat discrimination into domestic regulation. In the context of the recently commissioned Taylor Review, it seems reasonable to proceed with cautious optimism. It might be expected that, at the very least the UK Government will wish to build a future where workers’ rights fit into modern employment practices. However, if Brexit really does mean Brexit, all EU-guaranteed workers’ rights will inevitably be up for review, putting them at risk of dilution or indeed being entirely dismantled.  Given the UK’s track record in this area, we can only wait and see whether the UK’s practices step ahead or fall even further behind those already seen in rest of the European Union.

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