Reshaping the Welsh economy - now is the moment

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If anyone was still giving Boris Johnson the benefit of the doubt on whether he was prepared to take on bad employers and tackle the scourge of insecure jobs, then the recent Queen’s Speech should settle the matter.  

Despite all its rhetoric about ‘levelling up’, the UK Government has taken no action at all to address the huge growth in low quality and exploitative jobs. An Employment Bill that was promised 18 months ago is still nowhere to be seen.  

This means that for the foreseeable future employers will be free to cancel shifts with no compensation, demand that their employees work with little or no notice, and rake in the profits from a system that puts all the power in the hands of the bosses.   

Where does that leave us in Wales? It leaves us needing to do absolutely everything we can with the devolved powers we have to address the issue ourselves. The experience of the last year should give the Welsh Government confidence to act when Westminster won’t. 

The election results showed Wales’s growing electoral divergence from England. The new Welsh Labour Government should now use their mandate to accelerate policy divergence from Westminster too.  

The First Minister should feel emboldened to use the political capital that he’s won to reshape the Welsh economy in a way that provides real results for working people.  

A cruel pandemic lesson 

One of the most galling lessons of the Covid crisis is that even when it comes to a pandemic, our lower paid workers were once again hit hardest.  

If you were in an insecure job before the crisis hit, you were at greater risk of living in poverty and all the life limiting things that come with that. And during the pandemic you were at greater risk of dying from Covid and ten times less likely to receive sick pay than those in secure employment. The inequality is stark and cruel, and it was the reality for more than one in 10 workers.  

The new Welsh Government must recognise how harmful insecure work is. It hurts individuals and it hurts society. For example, the state had to step in to provide financial assistance to those who didn’t receive proper sick pay when they needed to self-isolate. Insecure work effectively transfers the costs from the employer to the state.  

A good job guarantee  

Too often our approach during economic recoveries has been underpinned by the idea that any job is better than no job. Policymakers intervene to ensure that unemployment is minimised at all costs.  

But the dire state of our labour market is chipping away at this principle. The sharp increase in the in-work poverty rate over the last decade undermines the idea that a job is a guaranteed route out of poverty. And evidence is emerging that some forms of insecure work are actually worse for people’s mental health than being unemployed.  

As a labour movement, this makes us question what the role of the state should be in a recovery. We don’t want anyone who wants a job to be unable to find one. But we also don’t want the state to encourage, facilitate or even compel someone to accept a job that could trap them in poverty and harm their mental health.  

There are two solutions and both rely on policymakers having higher aspirations.  

First, the Welsh Government needs to ensure that our devolved employability schemes – those initiatives which help people to find and progress in work – are geared towards getting people a good, secure job. Everyone should be aware of their rights and worth to that employer.  

Second, Welsh Government should invest in a jobs creation plan – incorporating ideas like a national retrofit programme –where good jobs and sustainable careers are a guaranteed outcome. It needs a vision for what it wants to achieve, it needs to work with industry to understand how it can get there, but then it also needs to work with trade unions and employers to make sure that bad jobs are written out.  

If the Welsh Government fails to step in and allows the market alone to determine labour outcomes, the recovery will inevitably replicate the many existing forms of labour exploitation. This is what happened after the last recession.   

For a long time we have focused on a goal of making our country a ‘fair work nation’ and have worked closely with Welsh Government and others to take steps towards this. But in a post-pandemic Wales this perhaps feels a little abstract, a little too hard to pin down.  

Our Covid recovery effort must be grounded in lived experience. It must aim for a labour market where every job lifts that person out of poverty and improves their mental well-being. Aspiring for any less than this would be irresponsible.