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Flexibility more “Trojan horse” than “miracle cure”


The UK's flexible labour market may be doing more harm than good, according to academics

The UK’s flexible labour market is more of a “Trojan horse” than a “miracle cure”, according to Jill Rubery, professor of comparative employment systems at Alliance Manchester Business School.

Rubery was speaking on ‘Flexibility bites back: what flexibility really means for workers, organisations and society’ at the CIPD Applied Research Conference.

She said that although flexibility has been touted as a “miracle cure” for the UK jobs market by many policymakers, with the OECD crediting it for keeping unemployment rates low, the truth is far more nuanced.

“I’m not totally against flexibility; we just need to look at both sides of the equation,” she said.

Some of the perceived benefits of flexibility – that it leads to job creation, increased productivity and reduces welfare dependency, for example – are “naïve”, she said, adding that they present “a view that it is acceptable for employers to shed their traditional responsibilities”, of providing stable employment for example.

According to Rubery’s analysis the flexible labour market may have created jobs, but many of these are part time, low paid or zero-hour contracts, with reduced progression opportunities, which can end up “constraining people” in poor-quality jobs.

She added that flexible labour markets do not favour older workers and do not encourage organisations to invest in training, as people are more mobile. The “war for talent” is, she proposed, a belated recognition by employers that they do need a more permanent workforce.

Other problems connected to the flexible labour market include an over-reliance on in-work benefits to subsidise low-paid work, lower tax revenues, and leaving “vulnerable groups at greater risk of exclusion if they have to constantly compete for work”.

Rubery concluded that policymakers tend to “laud the general benefits” of the flexible labour market while “ignoring” the cost to the state, individuals and families.

“Flexibility is arguably undermining two fundamental dimensions to a well-functioning economy by reducing rather than contributing to long-term productivity potential; by substituting a short-term disposable labour model for longer-term partnerships and investments, and reducing the economy’s fiscal base,” she said. “It is a Trojan horse contributing to future economic ills.”

The UK’s flexible labour market has been scrutinised in recent months, with cases such as the group of drivers taking Uber to tribunal over the right to be recognised as workers rather than self-employed, and companies such as Asos, Sports Direct and Hermes coming under fire for their treatment of agency workers.

The chief executive of the RSA Matthew Taylor is currently undertaking a government-backed review into modern workplace practices, which will explore how the UK can balance flexibility with job security and workplace rights.