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Opinion The future of work after Covid has to be better than what we currently have

The great political challenge of the pandemic is fixing workplaces to be better than they are, writes Michael Taft.

As part of The Good Information Project we are posing the question this month ‘What is the future of work after Covid-19?’. Siptu economist Michael Taft makes the case that this is a good time to reconsider how workers are treated. 

The pandemic has highlighted a growing understanding of the world of work. Clearly, there is a greater appreciation of the work performed by people in sectors such as health, retail, waste, transport and the gig economy. Work that was unseen or unrecognised prior to the pandemic has now come into full view.

However, it is vital that we don’t merely react to new or emerging trends on an ad hoc basis. We need to think about this and plan what comes next. The future of a fair and progressive workplace will revolve around three pillars: stakeholder planning, a new social contract, and respect and security in the workplace.

Planning what the future will look like

Firstly, we need to anticipate the challenges ahead and respond in a coherent manner. Siptu has idenitified some of the risks facing Ireland over the next decade which include both post-pandemic recovery and the medium-term impact of Brexit, as well as climate change, automation, Just Transition and the prospect of a long-term scenario of ultra-low growth.

The Government has committed to bringing together ‘stakeholders’ – employees, employers, civil society groups – around specific sectors of the economy (e.g. hospitality, retail, manufacturing, transport) in order to anticipate these risks and plan our way forward. Rather than passively surrender to the vagaries of the market, we can actively negotiate the strategies required to promote inclusive growth and prosperity over the long-term.

But stakeholder planning requires investment-based economic expansion. Siptu has proposed that the Government’s balanced budget strategy be rejected. Instead, we should take advantage of the current low-interest environment to maximise our borrowing for investment purposes.

This should focus on green investment, enterprise development (responding to Just Transition from automation and climate change), housing, state-of-the-art childcare facilities, healthcare capacity and public transport. Investment-based expansion is the foundation for stakeholder planning in the different sectors of the economy.

Respect for employees

A negotiated future combined with an investment-based economic expansion requires quality employment in the workplace, or decent work, grounded in respect for employee choices. For instance, in many workplaces management do not respect employees’ choice to bargain collectively.

In the future workplace, all sides should be able to choose how they bargain and have that choice respected. Already, there are discussions between government, employee and employer representatives on a new collective bargaining framework, while the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality has recently recommended that the right to collective bargaining be introduced into law.

Given the impact of the pandemic on working arrangements, remote working should be another area of employee choice. The ability of employees to structure work around their family arrangements and travel requirements could provide a significant boost to life quality.

The Government has signalled its intent to legislate not only for the right to remote working (at a minimum, a right to request which an employer cannot deny without good reason) while a recent code of practice governing the right to disconnect has already been introduced to restrict out of hours contact from work.

Collective bargaining, the right to remote working and the right to disconnect can become powerful tools to transform the workplace into a space for negotiating improved working conditions.

Income security

Improving working conditions also requires greater security in work. When the pandemic first hit, the Government realised the social protection system was not fit for purpose. It immediately and substantially increased illness benefits for those with Covid-related diseases – from €203 to €350 per week. This not only protected household incomes but ensured that people would not be economically forced to continue working, thus preventing the spread of the virus.

Ireland has no statutory sick pay scheme. While in other countries employees can receive up to 100% of pay while out sick, most Irish private sector workers have had to rely on inadequate state supports. The Government has conceded this issue and currently there are negotiations to introduce a sick pay scheme to cover all workers, regardless of the sector they work in.

The Government should also take the logical step of integrating the principles of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, which did so much to protect household living standards, into the social protection system. This could be done through a pay-related unemployment benefit (something that every other EU country has) and paid for by a fractional increase in employers’ social insurance.

We also need wage security. Over 20% of all employees earn below the Living Wage of €12.30 per hour, as calculated by the Living Wage Technical Group. The Programme for Government has committed to implementing a living wage within four years while the Taoiseach has stated that it will become a theme of the Government. Ensuring a wage floor that provides people with a minimal adequate living standard would be a significant step forward in workplace rights.

Negotiating economic challenges, an expansionary investment programme, respect in the workplace, employee choice and income security: these are the essential elements of the new workplace.

Many will claim that such measures will put too much burden on the productive economy. Never mind that in many sectors employees already benefit from collective bargaining, remote working, sick pay, and family flexibility. The fact is that improved workplace standards are not a product of economic performance but actually a driver of productivity and efficiency.

While there is greater appreciation of the work done by so many in the frontline of health or customer services, there is also an appreciation that companies are not merely generators of value-added and profits, though these are necessary conditions. They should also be generators of social and environmental capital.

Already, investment funds are refusing to invest in businesses that do not commit to environmental standards while consumers are moving towards more sustainable goods and services. Firms risk reputational damage from paying poor wages through precarious contracts. Generating environmental and social capital will help, not hinder, enterprise success.

Drawing on the lessons from the pandemic, the workplace of tomorrow has the capacity to meet the challenges coming at us, can instil respect between all stakeholders, and provide social security. In many of these areas there is already positive momentum. Now we need to create a framework that ensures that this future workplace starts working for everyone now. This is the great political challenge coming out of the pandemic.

Michael Taft is a Siptu economist

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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