Propping up Decent Work?

We live under a government which has set about stigmatising benefit recipients and prescribing mandatory work for many of those who wish to continue to receive assistance. It is seeking to introduce an Universal Credit system to integrate systems of assistance in a bid to “make work pay”. We can be in no doubt that work in the formal labour market is portrayed as a virtue. Possibly the ultimate virtue. No work? No right to consider yourself a proper citizen.

Of course, we also have unhelpful comments from the rapid right about the idle British worker. And we have repeated pressure to deregulate the labour market in order to hand more discretionary power to employers, because there is a sense – entirely contrary to comparative evidence – that workers in Britain are somehow too comfortably secure. I suppose that makes some kind of sense when we realise that parts of the Government don’t see Britain as primarily in competition with high wage high skill industrialised countries but industrialising countries with limited social safety nets and punishing work regimes.

The International Labour Organization has advanced the concept of “decent work”. It is engaged in a global campaign for favourable working conditions and protections and for just, rather than exploitative, remuneration.

A question is whether the UK labour market, particularly the bottom end of the labour market which interacts with the benefit system, generates jobs that can be considered “decent”. A second question is how people make sense of low waged employment. And what impact does receipt of in-work benefits have on the way they make sense of the labour market participation, work incentives and labour market participation?

A paper by Hartley Dean with the perhaps slightly unappetizing title of Welcome relief or indecent subsidy? The implications of wage top-up schemes has recently been published in Policy & Politics. The paper is based upon a qualitative study of people receiving Working Tax Credit. It examines how they make sense of work and whether that is affected by receipt of WTC.

However, the paper does much more than that. It provides a good overview of the history of wage support in Britain, and it makes some observations about how the British system measures up against those elsewhere. It very clearly brings out the point that this is a field in which economics is hopelessly intertwined with politics and ethics. And it provides some thought-provoking empirical material. It’s a small study, but it offers much to reflect upon.

And what’s more you can download it for free at the moment.

Even if you’ve never previously delved into the academic literature on this subject, it is well worth checking out.

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Categories: Economics, Politics