Whatever a flexible workforce is, it’s not

One of the dogmas of the last two decades is that the UK workforce needs to become more flexible, so that the UK (or rather, a new state with the frightening name of “UKPlc”) can become more competitive.

To create this flexibility, successive governments have (and this is not an exhaustive list)

  • reduced and removed the rights of workers to associate in Trades Unions and us those associations to protect and further their interests
  • insisted on opt-out clauses to European regulation, so that the UK workforce has less protection than its European neighbours
  • encouraged vast amounts of unpaid overtime, and then unpaid work
  • permitted wages and incomes to fall behind inflation
  • presided over a mountainous (and to-date unaddressed) personal and household debt mountain
  • abandoned commitment to full employment, and replaced this with a commitment to part-time, fractional, and temporary employment
  • allowed company pension plans to be closed and looted
  • reduced benefits protection for people temporarily out of work – “frictional unemployment”
  • created a vision of unemployed and poorly-paid employed as “The Other”: as chavs and scroungers, the undeserving
  • actively and by inaction destroyed the UK manufacturing base
  • encouraged the growth of a vast debt industry to profit an ever-wealthier, but tiny rentier class
  • reduced the numbers employed in Health and Safety, their powers, and the legal framework which supported them

The result is not a flexible workforce but a fearful and compliant one; a workforce with diminishing and insecure income together with unsustainable debt which is becoming indistinguishable from a precariat.

Manifestly, this project to create a flexible workforce is incomplete. No matter how many employment protections are removed, no matter how many hours unpaid work people do, no matter how many employees businesses can fire and how easily, no matter how low pay falls,  the UK economy has not been transformed and only performs the illusion of growth through unsustainable house-price bubbles.

The idea of a “flexible workforce” is therefore not related to growth and regeneration; it is only  another name for exploitation. The term itself is revealing: people are not “flexible”, the workforce (lumpen- if you wish) is. The term itself presupposes a Calvinistic predetermination of elect, preterite, and damned : of wealthy, workforce, and undeserving poor.

As such it is the very antithesis of social mobility, and the very definition of inequality.

In place of the nightmare of a “flexible workforce”, we must discard the Hayekian dogma that people and society are not perfectible, and the false outcome from this fallacy that people must only be allowed to engage with each other through markets.

In place of fear we should revive the vision of citizens who are well-educated, who are creative and innovative, who are adaptive to new technologies and instinctively problem-solvers, who are able, and expect to, collaborate. To bring this vision to bear we need to revive the necessary vision of a perfectible society, with the state replacing fear with universal healthcare, and welfare.

Whatever a flexible workforce is, it certainly isn’t composed of prison workers, child labour, and women ingesting phosphorus.  We’ve been there. We don’t want to return to it.


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