We should strive against ‘flexible employment’: it is antithetical to being one nation.

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John Hully, who writes the Putney Debates blog, wrote an excellent article in response to last week's debate on personal service companies. He has personal experience of the sector, but I will concentrate on what he wrote about the political and psychological dimensions of this issue, starting with the first in this extraordinarily tight analysis of just what is happening:

The use of personal service companies sits at the convergence of what appear initially to be two complementary ideas, and which turn out to be a very tight positive feedback loop. One is the ideological drive by employers to have the use of employees without any responsibility as an employer; the other is the ideological trope of ‘individual responsibility’, where persons seek employment without any responsibility towards an employer. The personal service company enables both parties to achieve this, with the added ‘benefit’ (to the two parties, not to anyone else or to society in general) that both reduce their tax liability. Denial of responsibility to others and to the state; ‘individual responsibility’; tax avoidance: neoliberalism.

I have long felt such things: this summarises it better than I could possibly have done.

But there is more to this issue, as John points out:

In her recent study Irena Gugulis, Professor of Employment Studies at Durham University, analysed the impact of the last two decades on employment practices in the UK media. She argues that at the end of the 1980s, the BBC began to change with the media industry from a monolithic body with defined managerial and career structures to one which commissioned rather than produced, and replaced careers with self-employment. During the next decade, the media sector became a sector of many small companies using the self-employed on short-term contracts (sometimes production by production or even more temporary). Professor Gugulis found that in an industry where self-employment predominates, career structures break down. For the self-employed, moving from one role to another – even similar or closely associated roles – within the same industry requires that you start again at the (very) bottom. This was a problem faced by the IT subcontractors in the 90s, forced to retrain themselves on new technology  and systems as the industry changed. But for the self-employed in the media industry, the bottom is now a lot lower.

The media industry is marked by unpaid work and unpaid internships. Employers who want employees without having any responsibility toward them will see no logic in employment benefits, and ultimately feel no need to pay them for their work. Someone wishing to change career role within the industry must be prepared for  perhaps years of unpaid or very low-paid work. Moreover, unpaid work and unpaid internships act as barriers to entry into work and into the sector by those who cannot afford to work without pay. Unpaid work introduces a bias against anyone without wealth, or with family responsibilities, or with dependencies such as disability.

The breakdown of a career structure removes value from a curriculum vitae, and the meaning from job titles. Within a large organisation where permanent employment is the norm, career levels are apparent to all employees. Career progression can be planned and attained, and the job titles, achievements and competencies held have a meaning to other potential employers in the sector. This is destroyed when employment is replaced by self-employment. The income of the self-employed is always determined by the current piece of work: the market replaces personal development. When CVs are effectively meaningless and work is piece-work, the self-employed have to find an alternative route to secure their next piece of work. The consequence is that selection based on experience and achievement no longer functions, and work is instead gained through personal networks.

That's bad, but I also found this telling too:

What makes someone employable is not being available and having the appropriate skills and experience, it is being known to be available by someone they have worked for or with previously. What gets them employed is not their skills and experience, or talent: but, Professor Gugulis asserts, whether they they will fit in. To get employment, you have to fit in. To fit in, you have to be like everyone else. The sector is populated overwhelmingly by people from the upper-middle class: but not just occupied, it has also been secured. If you do not ‘fit in’; if you are not part of this social background and milieu: even if you do not dress like everyone else, you are locked out. By creating a ‘flexible workforce’, the sector has been rigidly secured and protected from incursion by people from other classes or other ethnic groups.

Not only has entry to the sector been blocked: Professor Gugulis interprets her research to show that within the industry, gender roles have been re-enforced; with women assigned to clerical and administration, and barred from the creative areas of the sector. This is not her conclusion, but it seems the ‘flexible workforce’ is part of the war on women.

It is outside the scope of Professor Gugulis’ work, but it is necessary to speculate on how the occupation of roles in the BBC by a self-serving elite formed of self-employed members of the upper-middle class effects the ethos and output of the BBC.  In a piece I wrote earlier this year for Open Democracy’s ‘Our Beeb’ work, I posited the view that the BBC was lacking in self-awareness, particularly of its failure to question right-wing views, and especially of its complete failure to inform the public about the Health and Social Care Bill. I charged it with demonstrating the Dunning-Krueger effect. Perhaps it’s because it has been turned into a gravy train for a small clique of public schoolkids.

If the public perception of the BBC is that it remains the stuffy Reithian preserve of people named Dimbleby or Attenborough when it is clearly nothing like this any more, then public perception of “civil servants” as a bunch of Sir Humphreys is possibly even wider of the mark. The Commons Accounts Commitee’s request for information was prompted by the knowledge that the head of the Student Loans agency was on a  personal service contract. It seems this is common across the civil service. This undermines democracy. A civil servant who accepts a personal service contract effectively undermines the very state he or she is intended to serve, and erodes their credibility and authority.

The journey to a ‘flexible workforce’ is a dismal one. On the journey, revenue will be diminished, careers will be lost, organisations disorganised, employment made insecure, earnings reduced, the majority blocked from whole sectors of employment, gender roles re-established, ethnic groups discriminated against, the disabled further penalised, businesses made unable to plan long-term, skills lost, public service destroyed, and the state itself undermined.  Are these unintended consequences of pursuing a ‘flexible workforce’? Quite probably not.

The Labour Party should strive against ‘flexible employment’ with all its energy. It is antithetical to being one nation.

A good article makes you see the world in a different way after you've read it. John's did. I hope he'll forgive me sharing some chunks of it.