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Boosting workers’ voice can make the everyday economy work better for everyone

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Rachel Reeves’s (chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy select committee) new report on the ‘everyday economy’ calls for  “a national plan for improving the quality, pay and productivity of jobs in the everyday economy” – including the sectors like retail, hospitality and childcare where most people work. Rachel is chair of the influential Business Energy and Industrial Strategy select committee – so we need to take seriously what she says.

It’s a priority that is gaining traction across the political spectrum. The Chancellor’s generally low-key spring statement last week promised a “call for Evidence to understand how best we can help the UK’s least productive businesses to learn from, and catch-up with, the most productive.” And perhaps its unsurprising that productivity has become a political priority when it underpins the dismal economic forecasts that will see real wages still below their 2008 level over a decade later.

As Rachel sets out though, it’s not just the forecasts that matter, but how our economy affects people’s working lives now;  research we commissioned from the Learning and Work Institute suggests that there is a reasonably strong correlation between lower productivity sectors and the rise in insecure work. And it seems fairly clear that workers in lower paid, insecure jobs who don’t know their hours of work, miss out on sick pay, holiday pay and parental rights, and don’t have their voice heard at work, might be less productive.

So what would a plan for the everyday economy actually look like? It might not be surprising for a trade unionist to say that it must have workers’ voice at its heart, but that means it isn’t true. Every business will tell you that its workforce is their most valuable asset. But far too few act as that way.

In a recent poll of 3,000 workers conducted for the TUC, over two-fifths of workers said that big changes at their workplaces are driven through without consultation. A fifth said that staff suggestions for how to do things differently were ignored. And in a recent survey of nearly 7,500 workers, while 87% agreed with the statement “I am keen to embrace technology and maximise its benefits”, and 73% agreed that technology would improve productivity, less than one in four (24%) said that their employer gave them a say in how technology affects their work[1].

There’s good evidence that turning these trends round would have an impact not only on workers’ lives but on business success too. Recent research from Norway found that increases in union density led to substantial increases in firm-level productivity, as well as in wages. And as international institutions from the IMF to the ILO have shown, countries with higher levels of collective bargaining coverage have seen higher levels of wage growth, and lower levels of wage inequality.

That’s why the TUC’s Great Jobs Agenda puts boosting workers’ voice and representation at its heart. We call for  a right for unions to go into workplaces to tell workers about unions, a guarantee that employers consult on important changes, the  inclusion of elected worker directors on company boards and new bodies to bring businesses, unions and government together to discuss pay, training and conditions – starting in the low paid industries in the everyday economy that could benefit most from worker's voice. Having your voice heard at work should be an everyday occurrence. And it’s an essential part of any plan to deliver an economy that really works for everyone.