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Levelling Up White Paper leaves low paid workers behind

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Finally, after months of delays, the levelling up White Paper is out! So was it worth the wait?

As the TUC has argued, you can’t level up without levelling up at work. In-work poverty, driven by the prevalence of low-paid and insecure work, is sky-high in every region and nation of the UK. This reflects the fact that low-paid sectors, such as retail and social care, are major employers in every area of the country.

And more and better jobs is the public’s top priority for levelling up, with recent polling for the TUC conducted by YouGov finding that increasing the number and quality of jobs is seen as a priority for levelling up by one in two people from right across the political spectrum. Does the White Paper deliver this?

The White Paper sets out 12 missions – or aims – spanning living standards, R&D, transport, digital connectivity, education, skills, health, well-being, pride in place, housing, crime and local leadership. There is not a specific mission on work, but the living standards mission is “By 2030, pay, employment and productivity will have risen in every area of the UK, with each containing a globally competitive city, and the gap between the top performing and other areas closing.”

So, what is the plan for achieving this?

In a nutshell, it is to grow the private sector and improve its ability to create new and better paid jobs. There are five strategies to support this aim, all of which fall under a typical ‘industrial strategy’ umbrella: improving SME’s access to finance; boosting institutional investment, including from the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) and the recently established National Infrastructure Bank; attracting foreign direct investment and using trade policy, in particular freeports, to boost investment; improving the diffusion of technologies and innovation; and supporting and growing the manufacturing sector.

There are some important questions to be answered in relation to some of these strategies; for example, it is vital that the LGPS is invested in the long-term interests of its members, without its funds being diverted towards other purposes. And each deserves proper examination in its own right. But what they have in common is that all of them aim to create a better distribution of well-paid and highly skilled jobs around the country. This is needed - but what about the jobs that people are already in? There is no plan to address inequality within the labour market and nothing to level up work that is low paid and insecure.

The experience of London shows that the prevalence of high-paid jobs does not automatically lead to rising incomes for the wider community. Indeed, London has the highest rate of in-work poverty in the country, with people in low-paying service sector jobs priced out of housing and local amenities. To level up, we must tackle low pay and insecurity head on, and focus on those sectors that need it most.

We need to strengthen the floor of employment protection for all workers by raising the minimum wage and tackling zero hours contracts. And the government should lead by example, giving public sector workers a proper pay rise and reversing the devastating cuts that public services have suffered in the last decade. Decent jobs should be a requirement of all government procurement, so that the power of government is used to drive up employment standards.

But we also need to change the way our economy works to hardwire decent work into business models and economic growth. Relying on the private sector to level up without changing how it works will fail. We need corporate governance reform to rebalance corporate priorities and give working people a fair share of the wealth they create. And we need a new skills settlement to give working people access to lifelong learning accounts and a right to retrain.

Levelling up at work means addressing the imbalance of power in the workplace

Working people need stronger rights to organise collectively in unions and bargain with their employer. Collective bargaining promotes higher pay, better training, safer and more flexible workplaces and greater equality – exactly what we need to level up at work. Unions should have access to workplaces to tell people about the benefits of unions, following the New Zealand model.

And to level up we must tackle entrenched low pay and poor conditions within sectors head on, bringing unions and employers together to set sectoral Fair Pay Agreements for low paid sectors, starting with social care.

Creating new and better jobs is important; but this Levelling Up White Paper has left those in low paid, insecure work behind.

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