I have been aware for some time of the growing interest in how current social, economic and technical developments will impact on working lives. In recent months, the world of work has changed more rapidly than ever, under the twin forces of a global pandemic and accelerated technological change.
In December 2019, I began discussing issues around the world of work with the Institute for the Future of Work. As we entered the pandemic, I tabled a parliamentary motion highlighting the need for a review of basic statutory protection for the self-employed and those on zero-hours or gig economy contracts. Within a week, the chancellor announced his coronavirus support measures, founded on the ‘traditional’ definition of a worker, either as an employee or self-employed person. This meant many workers saw reduced economic support, or were excluded from this altogether.
And those who were able to continue working during the pandemic saw transformation in their working environment. Whole companies moved online, with workers leaving offices for home. For some, this will become the new normal. But having fallen into this way of working during a pandemic, many issues remain unaddressed, including the impact on workers living in inadequate housing or as part of large households; how to manage team working when the team seldom or never meets; and how to monitor performance without resorting to overly intrusive technology. The growing practice of automating elements of recruitment processes also raises serious questions about equalities.
MPs have begun to address these and many other issues that will affect the world of work in the months and years ahead. In November, I led a debate on the future of work that attracted input from a range of parties, although, somewhat ironically, this was diminished because parliament itself has not fully embraced remote working. I highlighted the need to learn from past mistakes, particularly from the 1980s destruction of manufacturing in the UK, which embedded worklessness in too many of our communities. We must not allow this to happen again and must consider how, in the face of fast-moving change, we share out work and its associated benefits in terms of physical and mental health, social status and economic independence.
MPs and peers from across the parties have come together to form an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on the future of work. This is chaired by Labour’s Clive Lewis, supported by myself, as well as Conservative MP David Davis. Davis chaired the group’s first webinar, ‘Rethinking Automation: the Nature of Work after Covid’, which raised some fascinating insights – my takeaway from it is that, under pressure from the pandemic and having passed a tipping point in terms of speed of progress to a more digital economy, we must ensure that these changes taking place in the context of Brexit do not result in a significant diminution in the rights and protections of UK workers.
The formation of the APPG and the links being created with outside bodies, including the CIPD, should keep these issues at the forefront of debate in the period ahead.
Kirsten Oswald is MP for East Renfrewshire and deputy leader of the SNP’s Westminster Group