OUBS expert speaks to House of Lords Covid-19 Committee’s inquiry

Dr Jamie Woodcock made several recommendations when he was invited to give oral evidence at the House of Lords Covid-19 Committee inquiry. The focus of this session in early February was understanding the impacts on work, within the context of increasing digitalisation and automation, with the long-term impacts on wellbeing.

The Senior Lecturer in Management’s recommendations drew on his previous research, as well as his involvement with the Research into Employment, Empowerment and Futures (REEF) academic centre of excellence in The Open University Business School.

His first point was that the impact of Covid-19 and the use of technology is different across the workforce. Jamie stated:

There is a risk, particularly in speaking to a committee on Zoom, of imagining that everyone is working from home during the pandemic and has access to a computer and reliable internet connection. For this inquiry, this means considering the shifts with office work that have been widely noted; for example, in the idea of ‘The Great Work Reset’. However, it also means considering the impacts on health and social care workers, as well as other frontline workers like cleaners and delivery drivers.

Dr Jamie Woodcock, Senior Lecturer in Management, OUBS

Jamie argued that there are some clear policy recommendations on the subject of technology and work. The first is that the existing employment statuses should be effective to protect the rights of many workers currently categorised as self-employed independent contractors. He recommended that Uber drivers and other gig workers should be reclassified as worker status, something that the Supreme Court ruled in favour of for Uber drivers a few weeks later. He also suggested that if algorithms are to be used to make management decisions at work, employers must be held accountable for their use, building from UNI Global Union’s demands. As increasing evidence shows the bias of these technologies, employers must be able to explain how they work. If they cannot, it is not appropriate to use them at work.

The other main area that Jamie made recommendations about involved employment and trade union rights.

Given the large numbers of redundancies and health and safety issues during Covid-19, the full suite of employment rights should be granted to workers from day one, rather than after two years. The lack of these protections puts pressures on workers not to exercise their rights.

Similarly, the Employment Tribunal service now has waiting times as long as two years, meaning that many breaches during the pandemic will not be resolved through this route. There have been delays in establishing the single labour market enforcement body, creating a lack of effective regulation for many workers.

There are two suggestions for how to address this: first, increasing access to justice through these regulatory means with an effective enforcement body; and second, facilitating workers’ access to justice through organising with trade unions, particularly by repealing anti-trade union legislation.

Dr Jamie Woodcock, Senior Lecturer in Management, OUBS

In conclusion, Jamie warned that a failure to address these problems would lead to greater polarisation of society, particularly as so many low-paid workers have been put at serious risk during the pandemic. Instead, there is an urgent need to collectively work through these issues and find a way to shape work that protects and supports a fair society.

There has been a lot of discussion about the “future of work”, often as a point on an imagined horizon. However, there are changes taking place right now, including the use of new digital technology, the growth of the gig economy, and new forms of worker agency that will shape what future we get, for better or worse.

Dr Jamie Woodcock, Senior Lecturer in Management, OUBS

You can listen to Jamie discuss these issues and speak about platform workers, the gig economy, and the future and equality of work here.

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