Manchester’s Good Employment Charter has been championed as a victory for workers’ rights. Its agreement to ban zero-hours contracts and pay above the minimum wage has given it a glamorous allure. Yet I can’t help but wonder – will it actually lead to meaningful change?
The Charter is part of a wider trend of local employment initiatives. From Sadiq Khan’s Good Work Standard in London to Steve Rotheram’s Fair Employment Charter in Liverpool, Labour Party mayors across the country have absorbed themselves in a battle over employment rights. What unites these initiatives is a subscription to a common vision of greater job security. They work by defining good employment practices and recognising those that adopt them. Incentives, in the form of grants and public contracts, are offered to encourage participation.
The motivation behind the Charter is urgent. Low-paid, insecure jobs have fostered the rise of in-work poverty. The number of people with a job, yet still in poverty is increasing at an alarming rate. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently revealed that 56% of people living in poverty were also part of a working household. Fundamental change is required to translate the rising employment rate – which sits at a record high of 76.3% – into higher living standards. Is the Charter capable of reversing entrenched structural issues?
Abstractly, the Charter may be contributing to a shift in popular perceptions of employment rights. Its announcement appears to have stimulated conversations about local employment issues and encourages a diverse spectrum of employers to carefully consider their employees’ welfare.
Despite its honourable contribution to the discussion surrounding employment rights, I believe the Charter’s limited power means it may struggle to settle a problem with deeply embedded and sprawled roots.
Andy Burnham, Manchester’s mayor since 2017, has framed the move as an expression of Manchester City Council’s autonomy. In reality, the impact of the Charter seems to me destined to be limited. The voluntary nature of the Charter means it could under-represent small businesses and rarely extend to workers in wider supply chains as it is likely to attract mainly companies with pre-existing high standards. Whilst those who are content with profiting from current injustices could simply continue to do so. Employment initiatives need the devolution of employment law to inflict meaningful change.
The Charter seems ill-equipped to tackle the roots of the rise of insecure work. The nature of the workplace is fast-changing and requires an assessment of structural problems and Manchester council cannot reverse the tide alone.
Britain’s ‘gig economy’, consisting of infrequent, casualised and on-call jobs, will continue to thrive if this employment climate continues. Gig economy roles are paid per piece, such as a set rate to deliver a package or drive a fare to a location, resulting in a lack of protection and no guarantee of earning minimum wage. Despite the record-high employment rate, the jobs market will remain patchy and insecure. Unemployment statistics will continue to mask reality.
With the innate limitations of the Charter in mind, it is hard not to view the launch as a political exercise. The Charter is riddled with pubic relations language. The launch oozed spin over substance. The role of the Charter is like that of a pressure group, advocating change from the sideline, while ill-positioned to bring about true transformation. If a fairer workplace is to thrive and long-term trends are to be tackled, the champions of this cause need more power. For a tangible change, either the central government needs to champion job security, or cities need to be granted more autonomy. Until then, insecure work will remain widespread.