Feedback from the fringe Vol II – REC @ Labour party conference
Earlier this week at Labour Conference in Manchester the REC hosted a fringe session in association with the Fabian Society and PCG. The theme was ‘New Forms of Work’, the panel included Shadow Employment Minister Stephen Timms MP and Guardian columnist Rowenna Davis. The event was the latest leg of our Flexible Work Commission ‘tour' as well as an opportunity to showcase the contribution of recruiters to the UK economy and labour market.
We are still facing deep-seated Trade Union objections to agency work as a concept. Even Ed Miliband’s speech on Tuesday included a nod and a wink to the Union agenda in this area. One of the rationales for having a strong presence at the Labour conference is the need to seize every opportunity to dismantle the argument that all temporary staff are systematically underpaid and exploited and that there’s a need for swathes of further regulation.
A common mantra at Labour conferences is that we are facing a calamitous ‘mass casualisation of the workforce’. One of my other fellow panellists – David Coats, Director of WorkMatters Consulting - got in there first and made the point that the data does not in any way support this assertion. The reality is that the number of temporary and contract staff has remained relatively stable for a number of years. And, if we were seeing an explosion in the use of agency workers, that would be OK too - our data shows that 70 per-cent of temporary staff are happy with their work which is higher than most surveys of permanent staff!
The temp versus perm issue (as in ‘all perm jobs are good and all temp jobs are bad’) is in reality a false debate. The real issue is skilled versus unskilled and the need to ensure that all workers – whatever working arrangements they choose – can progress within the labour market. This is why recruiters play such a key role; we not only help people access the jobs market, we facilitate transitions within it.
The Shadow Minister was particularly interested in flexible working arrangements as a route into employment for young people and other job-seekers. This is something that is likely to grow as an issue over the coming years as more people juggle studying and caring responsibilities with employment. There was also broad consensus on the need to raise awareness amongst future generations of workers of different ways of working – such as freelance and contract work – as well as of the skills that employers are looking for. Developing a careers guidance network that is fit for purpose should be a priority concern for policy makers across all the major parties.
The fringe session also honed in on some of the challenges facing freelancers and contractors as well as permanent staff on flexible working arrangements. Wrapping up the debate, the Shadow Employment Minister addressed the issue of what government action was required, if any, in order to promote freelancing and other forms of flexible work. The conclusion was encouraging in so far that it hinted at a light touch approach. Outside of the need for better support and guidance for job-seekers it is more about what government doesn’t do in terms of not adding to the regulatory quagmire. For the REC, the aim is to avoid anything too unpleasant in future manifestos which is why we will continue to engage positively with senior Labour officials.
Next stop, the Conservatives in Birmingham.