The TUC general secretaryFrances O’Grady doesn’t get a lot of airtime. Compared with predecessors a generation ago, such as Vic Feather and Len Murray, she is all but invisible. But in her Congress speech at Brighton on Monday, she struck a note that must have resonated with many of the public who have no idea who she is when she spoke of ‘greedy businesses that treat workers like animals’.
She was referring to zero-hours contracts, below-minimum-wage rates such as those effectively paid at Sports Direct’s Shirebrook warehouse, and rock-bottom fees per delivery offered to self-employed Hermes parcel-van drivers and Deliveroo fast-food couriers. And of course anyone not fundamentally opposed to free markets will take issue with her choice of words. ‘Greedy’ does not apply to every firm that develops a low-cost business model which involves flexible working at market rates. The work such firms offer suits many people today, including economic migrants, who consider it an opportunity rather than a form of enslavement. To compare them to animals, as though they had no free will, is to demean them in a way the work itself does not.
Well, maybe. But Frances O’Grady has a point. Driven by globalisation, automation and the advance of the internet, the world of work and its rewards are descending into an atomistic jungle. The concept of lifetime working for a single paternalist employer is long dead; so too, in most cases, is the defined-benefit pension. Old ways of recruitment, training and promotion, whether for school leavers or graduates, have largely gone. The absence of solidarity within what might once have been called the corporate family is one reason why senior executives feel entitled to megabuck salaries that bear comparison to external peers but are wildly disproportionate to the average pay of their own workforce.
Meanwhile, employment law has become more complex, and more burdensome to traditional employers, but seems remarkably ineffective in protecting those who scrape a living as agency workers, or via gangmasters, or as self-employed contractors.