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The Government’s call to ‘level up’ Britain is justifiably popular. We agree that our country’s poorest communities need to be lifted up to the level of wealthier ones. But slogans don’t always translate neatly into policy. That’s why we need an open and honest national conversation about what levelling up means in practice, how success will be measured and how we make it happen. As Boris Johnson acknowledged in his July speech, we need national measures, alongside place-based strategies, if we are to level up successfully. This must include measures to level up at work.

Labour shortages that have become so evident in key sectors from HGV drivers to adult social care workers show that we need significant pay rises and improvements in working conditions to recruit and retain the skilled workers we need. And employment rights matter too. We must make sure that we provide dignity, security and a strong voice for working people to end the casualisation, fragmentation and insecurity that characterises a large part of our labour market.

For too many working people, the link between work, security and opportunity is long broken. Over half of those living in poverty are in working households – and this rises to a shocking three quarters of children living in poverty. For far too many people, work is a trap rather than a route out of poverty. And this is a national, rather than a regional problem, as shown by the table below:

Rates of in-work poverty by region and nation (data is a 3-year average)

  2017/18 – 2019/20
North of England 17.7%
South of England and East 15.2%
London 21.8%
Midlands 17.6%
Wales 17.6%
Scotland 13.7%

IPPR Analysis of DWP (2020a) Households Below Average Income (HBAI) 2017/18 – 2019/20 (data refers to the number of people in working families who are in relative household poverty)

In-work poverty is fuelled by low pay and insecure contracts, which are endemic across every region of the UK. Over one in seven jobs in every region and nation is paid less than the Real Living Wage. This reflects the fact that low paying sectors are large employers across all regions and nations, with retail and social care among the top sectors of employment in every region and nation. Similarly, insecure work is common across all areas of the UK, ranging from nine per cent of jobs in Yorkshire and Humberside to 13% in the East of England. 

Place-based strategies, such as infrastructure and transport improvements, are important, but will not on their own address the root cause of the problem. The story of London is that the prevalence of high paid jobs does not automatically pull up incomes for others in the local community. High-income residents will create additional local economic demand –  but as long as so many service sector jobs remain low paid, this will expand the low-paid local economy, rather than fostering rising incomes across the board.

So we need a coherent plan to level up at work. That must include a just transition to meet the challenge of climate change,  creating good green jobs in the parts of the country that needs them most. But we need to make all sectors better too. We need to strengthen the floor for all workers, with stronger employment rights and a higher minimum wage for all. This must include banning zero hours contracts, bogus self-employment and the scandal of ‘fire and rehire’ and tackling the injustice that still sees too many black, disabled and women workers stuck on lower pay, with worse promotion prospects, and an expectation of ‘last in, first out’. Mandatory gender pay gap reporting helped spur action to tackle sex discrimination. Why not do the same to tackle race and disability discrimination too? The Government must bring forward the ambitious Employment Bill that we have long been promised.

Critically, just as President Joe Biden has advocated, we need to make it easier for workers to come together in unions to bargain with employers on their pay and conditions, to address the imbalance of power in the workplace. Much better to secure justice through negotiation than resort to the courts. The new union agreement with Uber is a case in point. 

Higher skills and education will be key to unlocking higher productivity and  good quality jobs. This must include a new national lifelong learning and skills strategy, corporate governance reform to prioritise long term investment over short term shareholder gain and sectoral strategies including fair pay agreements to address the prevalence of low pay and insecurity in our low-paying sectors. 

The Government must lead by example, showcasing the importance of good quality work through its role as an employer. We need an immediate end to the pay freeze and outsourcing of public sector jobs. 

We can harness the power of government spending to boost decent work, with job creation and job quality standards built into public investment decision-making and procurement policies. We saw with the London Olympics how a framework agreement tied to a large-scale infrastructure project can bring together contractors, unions, local authorities and community groups to boost local job and apprenticeship opportunities. This should be mandatory for all significant infrastructure projects going forward.

We know there are times in our lives when people cannot work or earn enough to live on – and a decent society must be measured by how we look after the most vulnerable. Fixing our safety net, including universal credit, sick pay and the state pension, is vital to give everyone the right to dignity and security. And what better way to help more people get back into work, so we can grow our economy faster, than top class childcare services too.

Levelling up the country is an ambition that the trade union movement can support. But it must be more than a slogan and make a real improvement to everyday working lives. Let’s work together on a plan to level up at work to make levelling up a reality.

Frances O’Grady is the General Secretary of the British Trades Union Congress. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. You can watch Bright Blue’s Conservative Party Conference 2021 event, in partnership with the TUC, here.