Work is killing us. Here are five ways to stop it

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Fourteen to sixteen hour shifts, six days a week; low wages; potentially fatal accidents a regular risk… this isn’t a description of working conditions at CLES, but of work during the industrial revolution. Thankfully, since then, capitalism and the world of work has been transformed. Child labour is illegal, employees have gained employment rights and health and safety regulations mean that going to any workplace is significantly less dangerous than it might have otherwise been.

However, just because the number of work-related accidents has fallen over the decades doesn’t mean that modern work is harm-free. There is mounting evidence of the dangerous effects on health of modern work practices. This is most severely demonstrated within the ‘gig economy’, in sectors where workers gain flexibility at the cost of employment benefits (sick pay, parental leave and the like) and work that is, more often than not, offering unstable hours and low-paid.

The recent BBC docudrama ‘Killed By My Debt’ highlights the case of Jerome Rogers, just one of the growing number of people finding themselves at the sharp end of Britain’s gig economy. A 20-year-old Citysprint courier on a zero hours contract, the drama shows how Jerome struggles to pay two £50 traffic fines, which then quickly spirals to a personal debt crisis of over £1,000. After being confronted and threatened by a bailiff working for a private firm outsourced by the council, Jerome takes his own life.

This type of employment is not an isolated case. It is estimated that around 4.5 million people in the UK are in insecure work, with more than half of zero hours jobs carried out by young (16-34) people.

Poverty is inextricably linked with debt. 3.7 million people in work (one in eight) live in poverty, and 3.3 million people are in “severe problem debt” (defined as showing three or more signs of financial difficulty*).  Debt is inextricably linked with mental health. Our economy is producing jobs, but more of them than ever are within the gig economy – an economy that contributes to a vicious circle of poverty, insecure work, debt and physical and mental health problems.

We should not beat around the bush here – modern work is killing us.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, argues that toxic work environments are as dangerous to health as second-hand smoke, and calculates that work-related issues may be responsible for as many as 120,000 American deaths a year. So, how do we reform work so that people are healthier, businesses more productive, and governments not beset by chronic health conditions?

1: REGULATION

In its Brexit-induced domestic policy inertia, the government has implemented little of the Taylor Review of Modern Work Practices. Taylor himself rated the government’s official response to his report at just four out of ten, with many of the report’s recommendations being merely put out for consultation.

An average business can expect a minimum-wage inspection every 500 years. Beefing up the resources of tax enforcement agencies and giving them tougher punishments should reduce the number of unscrupulous companies getting away with poor employment practices, at the expense of both workers and those employers who play by the rules.

2. HEALTHIER WORK CULTURES AND A MOVE TOWARDS ALTERNATIVE FORMS OF OWNERSHIP

Research by the TUC found that 3.3 million (one in eight) UK employees regularly work more than 48 hours a week, the legal limit as per the EU Working Time Directive. Over half regularly work through their lunch break. In contrast, a new French law gives employees the right to ignore e-mails after their working day has ended.

Business leaders must understand that when people come to work for them, those individuals have placed their physical and psychological well-being in their hands. They need to balance their obligations not just to shareholders but also customers, employees and the community – so-called “stakeholder capitalism”. Workers need to choose their employer not based on salary and promotion opportunities but on the basis of whether the job will be good for their psychological and physical health. Businesses should measure the health of their workforce, not just profits. And more generally, a wider range of ownership (co-operatives, mutuals and the like) should be encouraged so that workers have more control over organisational culture and direction.

Remember, there is a cold, hard business case for these measures – healthy and happy employees are productive; stressed and sick employees are not.

3. CHALLENGE EXPLOITATIVE FIRMS IN THE COURTS

Since the decline of trade-union membership in Britain, the employment-tribunal system has been the main mechanism for enforcing individual employment rights. In 2013 employees who thought they have been wronged by their employer – underpaid or dismissed unfairly, for instance – had to pay up to £1,200 to go to an employment tribunal, which was previously free. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the government was acting unlawfully and unconstitutionally when it introduced the fees, preventing genuine claimants from enforcing their employment rights.

4. NEW UNIONS

Small but rapidly growing unions such as the ‘Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB)’ are helping to win basic rights for couriers, cleaners and other workers on zero-hours contracts, showing the value and impact of trade unions in the 21st century.

5. SCRUTINISE PUBLIC SECTOR OUTSOURCING AND USE SPENDING AS A MEANS OF PROMOTING A PROGRESSIVE AGENDA

Private firms who are awarded outsourced public sector contracts, like bailiffs who show intimidating behaviour to pursue traffic fines, should be subject to greater scrutiny. Public sector procurement should merely be viewed as a way to get a product or service at the cheapest possible cost, but instead as a powerful force, leading the way in demanding ethical employment practices from suppliers – no zero hours contracts, paying the real living wage etc.

We must learn from history – work doesn’t have to kill us

Just like governments in the 19th century reformed capitalism to ensure workplaces became safer, so too must governments today in order to address the ticking time bomb of work-related health issues. Failing to do so will lead to us creeping back towards Victorian-levels of exploitation within the workplace. Addressing these issues, on the other hand, would increase the productivity of our economy, ease the burden on the state and, most critically, ensure we live healthier lives.

* The following are considered to be signs of financial difficulty: making minimum repayments on credit commitments for three months or more; falling behind on essential bills, using credit to pay essential bills; using credit to keep up with credit commitments; using credit to make it through to payday; getting hit with overdraft or late payment charges on a regular basis. Source: https://www.stepchange.org/media-centre/press-releases/credit-statistics-problem-debt.aspx