Build Back Fairer

“Build Back Better” has become the mantra. Good as far as it goes, but unless we build back fairer we’re back to the status quo. High levels of economic inequality and deprivation are damaging to health and wellbeing. The core objective must be providing good jobs.

Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You was a superb swipe at zero-hours Britain. The main character, Ricky, is persuaded by his mate to take on what looks like a nice little earner, van driving for a delivery company. Except it turns out it’s not a job, but bogus self-employment. He gets no holiday, no pension, no sick pay, and yet doesn’t have the freedom of how to work, or even let his daughter ride in the cab with him.

No such thing as rest breaks, he has to carry an empty plastic bottle with him for when nature calls. His life rapidly descends in to one of unrelenting stress and financial insecurity which has a toxic impact on his wellbeing and his family life. It’s also set in Newcastle, and worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.

Self-employment can be great. It’s hard work, and can be risky. But you get to be the boss, and you get to keep the profits. I’m right behind small businesses and entrepreneurialism. But the gig-economy is not self-employment. It’s serfdom. Gig-economy workers don’t get to keep the profits.

If you’re on low pay, you have no choice but to work long hours. Nationally, 56% of people in poverty are in a working family. It was 39% twenty years ago. In the North East, 22% of our workers are paid less than the Real Living Wage (£9.50/hr), the pay rate you need to pay your bills without falling into debt or hunger.

Over the past ten years we’ve seen an explosion in the gig economy. Pre-Covid, 1 in 6 UK workers were in insecure employment. There is a direct correlation between insecure work, workplace bullying and health and safety violations. Of course, the rest of us have to pick up the bill for the social consequences of that.

Poor employment contracts are bad for your health. The Good Work Monitor, from the Institute for Future Work, published evidence that lower paid and lower status jobs have increased illness, mortality, and “diseases of despair” – suicide and substance abuse. Our social care workers are particularly vulnerable. Poverty wages and no sick pay means they’re too poor to stay safe.

There is an alternative. Last week I spoke at an event organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Future of Work. Alongside my Metro Mayor colleague Andy Burnham and Professor Sir Michael Marmot, the public health guru.

I highlighted our work in the North of Tyne on our Good Work Pledge. It underpins all of the 3,200 jobs we’re on target to create. It was great to get the thumbs up for the Good Work Pledge from Sir Michael. We’re meeting with his team to explore what more we can do to tackle the health inequality in our region

.Criticising bad business practices is not anti-business any more than criticising dangerous drivers is anti-driving. Calling for better employment practices is pro-business. Our Good Work Pledge was developed with the North East Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses, and the British Confederation of Industry. They hate bad employment – and want to see good employers rewarded. If you’re an employer, and you look after your staff, please get in touch if you want to sign up. There’s a “low-admin” route for small businesses. It’s all on the North of Tyne website.

In the crusade to provide good work, stamping out insecure employment is crucial. A word of thanks therefore to the Uber drivers. Their years-long fight to be classed as workers and not self-employed “partners” was finally ruled on by the supreme court a fortnight ago. The court’s unanimous decision was that Uber drivers were “workers” entitled to basic rights including the minimum wage and statutory holidays.

This landmark ruling is another step towards making the exploitation of gig economy workers like Ricky a thing of the past.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 1.3.21