“Create a minimum job quality standard.” An impossible demand?

September 7, 2018

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By Martyn Evans, Chief Executive, Carnegie UK Trust co-chair of the Measuring Job Quality Working Group

The ambition for ‘full employment’ became a key party political battleground over the 20th century. The skirmishes lasted into this century, even within the same party. When he was Chancellor, George Osborne criticised the Thatcher government declaration that unemployment was a price “well worth paying” to bring down inflation. Speaking in 2014 Osborne said: “Today I’m making a new commitment, a commitment to fight for full employment in Britain – making jobs a central goal of our economic plan.”

There was very good reason for the past and present focus on the number of jobs. Even within advanced social protection benefit schemes, paid work has still proved to be the best route out of poverty. Work was also a source of personal status as well as material and social enrichment. Today the numbers in work in the UK are at a record high. However the battleground on employment has been shifting.  Now quality of work has come under increasing scrutiny. The reasons for this shift include unprecedented levels of in-work poverty and fears of growing job insecurity and inequality.

Matthew Taylor’s Modern Employment Review celebrated the UK’s strong record for both measuring and creating employment-job numbers. However – and crucially – it challenged government to look beyond the number of jobs created and to focus on the outcome of ‘work that is fair and decent, with realistic scope for development and fulfilment’. In accepting nearly all of the report’s recommendations the UK government has indicated its willingness to respond positively to the challenge.

Impressive early action had already been undertaken by different UK jurisdictions on job quality. The Scottish Fair Work Convention drafted a Fair Work Framework to scope what fair work means in practice. The Welsh Government created a Fair Work Commission and now a Fair Work Board.  The Northern Ireland Executive has a commitment to ‘more people working in better jobs’. The Mayor of London has a Fair Work Charter. Greater Manchester has a ‘Good Employer Charter’.

For quality of work to go from being an aspiration to effective public policy with the right instruments for change applied, we need a commonly agreed definition of ‘good work’ and a way of measuring progress towards that goal. In other words, we need a robust and detailed job quality measurement framework. Effective job quality measurement will tell us more about the reality and complexity of work and its impact on the quality of life for citizens. Measurement should be able to tell us what different people, in different circumstances, in very different sectors experience at work and what their views are.

Over the course of the last year, a group of experts, from many organisations concerned with addressing job quality in the UK, have contributed their knowledge and perspectives to examine the barriers and complexities of implementing a new approach to measuring job quality in the UK. The report was published in September and is available here.

One of shortest but most challenging recommendations of the report is that the UK Government should explore the development (in time and with the insight provided by the Report’s recommended measurement system) of a ‘minimum job quality standard’. The creation of such a minimum standard, if properly constructed, should allow a very clear story to be communicated about where the poorest quality jobs are. The ‘location’ could be by geography, sector, individual characteristics or a combination.

It is worth remembering that in the UK in the 1990’s policy makers in general and economists in particular were generally hostile to the idea of a ‘minimum wage’. They characterised supporters as being economically illiterate and politically naive. They have since shifted their thinking radically! We might expect the same dismissal of the idea of a ‘minimum job quality standard’. Who will history prove right?