Brexit, Workers' Rights and the Common Good

Now that Theresa May is seeking a consensus across Party political divides the issue of the worker’s rights is, at last, on the Brexit agenda. It is clear that the preservation of jobs and prosperity, together with guarantees on employment rights and environmental standards, are central to any possible Brexit deal acceptable to the Labour Party.

But the issue of workers’ rights is not only a possible piece in the jigsaw of a future solution, it is also key to understanding how we got into this Brexit conundrum in the first place.

Why Brexit?

There has been much debate within the Labour Party and the wider labour movement since 2016 to try and comprehend why the Remain campaign so conspicuously failed to persuade those who had the most to lose economically from Brexit to vote against. For while those from higher socio-economic groups, Conservative voters, and older people, were the mainstay of the Leave vote, the support of many working class voters tipped the balance. Though the majority of trade union members (60%) and Labour voters (67%) supported Remain a significant section of Leave support came from working class communities.

These communities have been called ‘left behind’, but ‘done over’ would be a more appropriate description. They are the victims of our failing economic system. In general, working class Leave voters were from areas of the country where regional development organisations were abolished by the Coalition Government in 2010, in the name of ‘austerity’, and where EU money is at present one of the few sources of regional funding for local jobs and infrastructure.

Some, including Blue Labour thinkers such as Adrian Pabst, Jonathan Rutherford and Maurice Glasman, have explained this Brexit contradiction as a result of the failure of the Labour Party to speak out on matters of cultural identity and belonging, and they believe that the values of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) provide a basis to for the Party to do this. But this appeal is to a particular interpretation of CST that is a nostalgic and backward looking, a social conservatism of ‘family, flag and faith’.

This is a dangerous and ultimately ineffective strategy. It risks flirting with reactionary and socially divisive nationalist forces, and it misses the main point. The social alienation that drove the working class Leave vote arose from  experiences of injustice in the workplace and in working class communities. It is this that needs addressing.

There are major challenges of social justice in the modern world of work and there is an aspect of the CST tradition that can deal directly with these, and provide a coherent critique of the neo liberal economics which have wreaked havoc on working class communities.

Papal Encyclicals from Rerum Novarum onwards have recognised the importance of dignity at work to human flourishing. This was highlighted in the statement agreed at the most recent Vatican hosted meeting for international trade unionists in 2018 which called for the right for all to decent work with universal labour standards.  It this element of the CST tradition which is the best way to address current working class social alienation.

A fairer economic settlement, a recognition by employers of their wider social responsibilities, and social policies that prioritise workers’ rights, are now urgent in the UK.  These demands are the classic preoccupations of the Labour Party, but what is at stake is far beyond conventional adversarial Party politics.

The effects of ongoing austerity economics is shredding our social fabric with the explosion of zero hour contracts, increasing in-work and child poverty and a housing and homelessness crisis. If these issues are unaddressed at this unsettled time we may experience a decisive shift of support of sections of the working class to the far right.

There is hope. Within the labour movement there is new creative thinking on how to deal with key problems in the world of work; persisting economic inequality, work life balance and well being, the growth of ‘precarious’ work, as well as meeting the challenges of the fourth technological revolution in a globalising world and on a planet with finite resources.


It’s the economy stupid

The predominance of market fundamentalist economic dogmas in the UK for over four decades has massively increased the economic inequality between the few at the top and the majority of working people. Put simply most people are working harder and longer for less and many are remaining poor and some are getting poorer.

The ideological dominance of neo liberal principles in the private sector, in public services and even in the voluntary and charity sector, has pushed down wages and salaries for those in the middle and bottom sections of the workforce and eroded respect and dignity in workplaces across the UK.

Market fundamentalist economics applied at the micro workplace level has resulted in the phenomenon that theorists call ‘work intensification’. This work intensification has been directed through the use of models of performance management with instrumentalist assumptions that employees are units of production, and explicitly deny personal autonomy.

The result is a lack of control over working hours and day-to-day pressure and stress. This is the case whether you are a professional or a ‘blue collar’ worker, whether you work on a manufacturing production line, in sales and marketing, in public service or for a global corporation.

Rather than participating in meaningful activity that can contribute to human flourishing, many of us are exploited as cheap labour to meet accelerating targets. Instead of taking pride in a job well done, and the satisfaction of the delivery a good service, work for many has becomes soul less and soul destroying.


Wellbeing and work

Performance management, accompanied by increased surveillance of work activity aided by increasing digitalisation, has encouraged bullying cultures which are a significant factor in the epidemic of mental health issues in the workplace. The treatment of those with disabilities at work (both mental and physical) often as a result of aging, has become the cutting edge of the struggle for dignity at work.

An aging workforce is just one way the character of the UK workforce has changed.  We need an overhaul of the 1950’s style assumption that a ‘worker’ is a straight, white, male, able bodied breadwinner between the ages of 16 and 60. It is certainly not typical now, and was arguably never really accurate anyway. It is not possible to turn back the clock – and would we want to anyway?

The structural change in the nature of the workforce has shifted the focus of rights at work. Issues of flexibility, including demands for increased rights to maternity and paternity, parental and carers leave, are higher up the Unions bargaining agenda. So, in an increasingly diverse workforce, is resisting discrimination and prejudice at work. Women are in the workplace in double the numbers of the previous generation. This means that expectations change, shown up most recently in the #metoo anti sexual harassment campaign.  The walkout by Google workers against sexism in tech was a small snapshot of the future.


The growth of ‘precarious’ work

There has been a sharp rise in insecure ‘precarious’ work where people have few rights and no guaranteed hours or income. The TUC estimates that casualisation through outsourcing, zero-hour contracts, and the widespread use of agency and fixed term contract labour now affects up to 3 million workers in the UK. It doesn’t just affect those who are trapped in the ‘gig’ economy. Casualisation exerts a downward pressure on wages and terms and conditions for those in secure employment in all the sectors where it is prevalent.

Some have argued that ‘precarious’ work is a new phenomenon, but those who know their labour movement history are aware that the new practices expected of the ‘precariat’ are actually very old. Piece work, bogus self-employment, and lack of access to basic rights such as sick pay and holiday pay are what happens when workers are unprotected by employment laws, or by collective agreements that can be enforced by strong trade unions. There are however seeds of hope such as the GMB Union’s recent deal with Hermes which give a degree of security to workers that can be developed further.


Responding to the fourth industrial revolution

The use of digital platforms in advertising (Facebook) and delivery services (Amazon) have made the new generation of ultra-capitalists such as Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos mega billionaires. Promises that the new digital platform economy would democratise work and other flights of fancy promoted by ‘post capitalists’ have, unsurprisingly, failed to materialise. The rise of ‘networked individuals’ has not led to greater empowerment for the majority of ordinary workers.

Similarly, the warnings that we are heading for a workless future seems way off beam. It has been a perennial claim, made whenever there is a change of technological paradigms, that work will disappear. But the lessons of previous eras are that new technologies bring big changes to the nature and structure rather than the quantity of employment.

The real contemporary challenge is how the increased profitability from the use of new technologies in myriad sectors of the economy will be shared between owners and employees, not just in pay but also in working time, work-life balance and flexibility. The call for a four-day week made by the Frances O’Grady the General Secretary of the TUC at the 2018 Congress is an important demand.


Social security?

Fears of a workless future appear to be exaggerated, but new ideas are necessary to reform the current benefits system. The call for a Universal Basic Income, whilst worth considering in some form, is not a silver bullet. UBI has a mixed heritage, having been adopted in the past by those on the right who wished to have a minimalist welfare system– including Milton Friedman and Richard Nixon. Recently the idea has been taken and by those on the progressive left.

But what is at stake in any proposed reform of welfare is our future social cohesion. Because of the current inhuman and discredited benefits sanction regime, and the introduction of Universal Credit, we are on the cusp of giving up on the aspiration for an effective social safety net in our country at all. Social security based on contributory principle with effective mechanisms against poverty and practical support for those most in need is essential for a civilised society.   We need to restore to those demonised as ‘scroungers’ a sense of entitlement. They have contributed to our society and now deserve support from the rest of us. We need social solidarity between those in work and those out of work. We need dignity and respect at work and dignity and respect when circumstances force you out of work.


Workers’ rights in a global age and on a finite planet

Even where workers are organised in Unions it has been difficult to reverse damaging structural decisions, often made by corporate management of multinational companies. An increasingly global economy needs a joined up global labour movement response. The international trade union movement has had some success in gaining victories for workers in global supply chains but a lot more pan national coordination is needed. Unfortunately, Brexit seems likely to take us in another direction.

Decisions to change energy and resource use in our society and to invest in sustainable technologies are most effective when supported by both Unions and business. A Government serious about tackling climate change would include a worker’s perspective in any future Green Deal.  


Towards a new collectivism

Despite, or perhaps because of, the continuing rise in inequalities at work, popular support for collective organisation in the workplace is at its highest for decades, including among young workers. There is an opportunity now, more than ten years on from the excesses of the market system evidenced by the Financial Crash, to turn away from the failed experiment of austerity economics, to challenge low pay and the wider social injustices that have their origins in workplace inequalities.

We need positive labour market regulation, an abolition of the anti-trade union laws that stop working people taking effective industrial action, expansion of collective bargaining and rights for all workers from day one, whatever their employment ‘status’.

We do not need to go back to old ways or ‘tribal’ politics to rebuild a collective sense of workers’ dignity in 21st century. Nostalgia for how things have been does not help us move on.  We need a new consensus to apply the human values of CST to the areas of our lives where these values seem to have been banned – at work.  We need to create a more moral economy which meets the challenges of inequality, sustainability, diversity and globalisation.

We are all social animals who need to be connected with others, and to that which is outside of our selves. Productive activity is essential not just for our economic prosperity but to our sense of being and future flourishing.

Books and Articles

Adrian Pabst ‘The Politics of the Void’ New Statesman 22nd August 2018

Jonathan Rutherford ‘Why Blue Labour is still revenant under Corbyn’ Labourlist 2nd April 2019

Statement on “Work and Worker Organisations” agreed at the meeting of trade union organisations convened by the Dicastery for promoting integral human development -and-worker-organisations-at

Imran Ahmed & Angela Eagle The New Serfdom Biteback Publishing 2018

Will Stronge ‘Work and Free Time’ Open Democracy 21st March 2019

Paul Mason Post Capitalism Allen Lane 2015

David Powell ‘Rebooting the Green New Deal’ NEF 25th January 2019

 K D Ewing, John Hendy & Carolyn Jones (ed) Rolling Out the Manifesto for Labour Law IER 2018

Dr Maria Exall is a Research Fellow in Catholic Social Thought and Practice with the Centre for Catholic Social Thought and Practice and the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University. She has a PhD in Philosophical Theology from King’s College London. Maria is a national trade union representative and political activist.