Tackling bad work starts by asking the right questions

September 24, 2018

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By Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive, RSA and co-chair of the Measuring Job Quality Working Group

Last week the latest UK employment statistics were released, heralding yet another fall in unemployment to a new record low since the 1970s. This continues a pattern we can rightly feel pleased with. We should acknowledge and celebrate the UK’s successful record of job creation. But the employment statistics do not tell the whole story about work in the UK. While we know quite a lot about the numbers of people who are working, we know much less about their quality of work.

That quality, rather than quantity of work, is the key issue in today’s labour market can be demonstrated by the Review I was asked to lead by Theresa May, in her early days of taking office, looking into the impact of modern working practices. The Review heard directly from workers, employers, policy makers and campaigners from around the country on the controversies over quality of work. We heard about the rise of bogus self-employment; about evasions of employer responsibilities, the complexity and failures of worker tribunals; a widespread lack of worker awareness of their rights and entitlements; of one-sided employment flexibility and power imbalances. The Review suggested over 50 recommendations to address some of these challenges, but of these, a key recommendation – that the UK Government should measure and be accountable for quality of work – saw relatively little coverage.

Was it perhaps because the recommendation seemed relatively uncontentious? Because there is in the UK, finally, widespread agreement from across the political spectrum that quality of work is a rightful issue to address, that quantity and quality of work can, and should, go hand in hand? A growing awareness that quality of work has a huge impact on our health, our wellbeing, our families, our finances and our communities?

Or is it perhaps that measuring quality of work sounds a bit difficult and technical? We all have our own views on what good work means, but the multiple aspects which contribute to a good or a poor experience of work are intrinsically harder to measure than the numbers working.

Despite the challenges, taking forward this recommendation is crucial if the UK Government is to demonstrate it takes quality of work seriously. To take action on improving work starts by asking the right questions in our national statistics. We need to measure job quality in the same way we measure job quantity – i.e. through robust, regular and national statistics, ideally the Labour Force Survey. Because otherwise we can’t rank where we are, understand systematic differences in people’s experience of work, or measure progress towards good work.

This is why I have been pleased to co-chair the Measuring Job Quality Working Group convened by the Carnegie UK Trust, which has worked over the past year to scope out a set of national job quality metrics to start us on this journey. The set of measures recommended by the Group won’t help us fix the issues in the labour market overnight. But they allow us to start asking the right questions to address the present challenges workers face, and find solutions so more employers can be supported to offer better work. Perhaps just as importantly, if the Group achieves our ambition of seeing the national job quality statistics reported in the media to the same interest and fanfare as the employment statistics, a commitment to good work for all will become part of the national conversation.

It is great that the following my Review the UK Government accepted the goal of good work for all as part its economic and social agenda. If it now enacts the Measuring Job Quality Group’s recommendations by introducing national job quality statistics, we can feel assured that the measure of good work is now an established part of how we account for our success as a country.

Read Measuring Good Work, the final report of the Measuring Job Quality Group, or read the executive summary here.

Join in the debate on Twitter #MeasuringGoodWork