Friday, 17 April 2015

The Talk About Work and What It Really Means

In the blog this week: The Institute is working on “Jobs for the Boys”, which studies the transformations of work. In connection to this and the upcoming elections, Elisabeth Wide examines the work politics of the British Conservative party in the UK and the Finnish National Coalition party.

The National Coalition party (NCP) in Finland and the Conservative party in the United Kingdom have many things in common. Not only are they both lead by white men, they are also political parties characterised by a mishmash of right-wing conservative and liberal politics and a claim to represent the working people. In their shared rhetoric, the worker who creates value for companies paradoxically becomes a burden for the employer.

Both the UK and Finland are heading for general elections this spring, the UK on 7 May and Finland on Sunday 19 April. The Conservatives and the NCP are currently the biggest parties in their respective governments. Both moderate political parties also face a threat to their positions of parliamentary power. According to recent polls, the support for both parties is wavering.

In the rundown to the elections, the two parties appear to have chosen work as a common theme to appeal to voters. This week the Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative party tweeted that his party is “the real party of working people in our country today”. The Conservatives also released their manifesto on Tuesday 14 April, placing a strong emphasis on work. In the NCP’s election campaign, the party puts “work on the frontline” and wants to “set Finland in motion through work”.

Work and Poverty

Work is an important part of everyone’s life. It is indeed an urgent matter to improve the situation of workers in Finland and the UK, since there are many hardworking poor people in both countries. At the moment, there are almost 700 000 people in the UK with zero-hour contracts as their main job. If you count workers who have more than one zero-hour contract, the number rises to 1.8m. In Finland the equivalent number is 83 000 people. Zero-hour contracts are criticized for failing to provide economic security for workers, leaving them in a precarious position.

There are evidence pointing to the increase in the number of working people living in poverty both in London and Helsinki. In London 12.9 % of full-time workers and 48.8 % of part time workers still earn less than the London living wage, currently set at £9.15 per hour. The national minimum wage is only £6.50, insufficient to meet the high living costs of the capital. In Helsinki the number of people in employment depending on social welfare in order to survive is increasing.

Emotions and Equal Opportunities

The Conservatives proclaims that they will “fight for equal opportunity”, a sentence very similar to the NCP’s strive to “create a country of equal opportunities”. Both parties wish to do this through work. Both make emotional claims for the hard working individual, stating that work should be rewarded more.

However the claim to focus on work and represent the working people is only rhetoric. In their manifests, the two parties approach work as something solely positive for individual workers, and as a problematic, bureaucracy-driven matter for businesses. The NCP in Finland defines work as a way to achieve self-fulfilment for the individual. The British Conservatives talk about work as a way for an individual to achieve a good life. And their policy suggestion reflect this, ignoring how work-related changes will affect individual employers.

Actual Policy Suggestions on Work and Taxation

The NCP aims to increase the amount of flexible working hours and employment contracts. The party also wishes to offer “more possibilities for workers to agree on working conditions and salaries in the working place”. This is a very radical proposal, since it would not only increase income inequalities among workers, but also most likely decrease the salaries of workers. Furthermore, the party would encourage businesses to employ more people by making the initial probation period longer. This policy would also increase uncertainty for workers.

In the UK unemployment is down to 6 %, which the Conservatives often refer to as a success story. The problem lies not in the quantity but in the quality of jobs. According to London-based think tank New Economics Foundation, most of the jobs created in Britain during the last decade have been precarious low-paid jobs. The think tank lists social care and retail as examples of two big sectors that are growing, but that offer the lowest pay.

The Conservatives claim to aid these workers by raising the Personal Tax Free Allowance up to the level of the minimum wage for people working 30 hours. The Centre for Labour and Social Studies reports that most minimum wage workers already pay no income tax and are instead affected by a higher VAT tax. This is a tax that both the Conservatives and the NCP wish to increase. The NCP aims at reducing income taxation for all income groups, while raising VAT. This non-progressive tax will hit poor people the hardest. Furthermore, both parties propose cuts to benefit allowances for unemployed people seeking work.

Even though the Conservatives might be more straight-forward in their rhetoric articulation than the NCP, ultimately both have the same goal; to improve working life by making it easier for businesses to employ and discharge people. By not confronting the decreasing quality of work nor the increasing amounts of low-paid flexible employment contracts, it becomes evident that the parties interest lies in making working life more flexible from the point of view of the employer, not the worker.

Elisabeth Wide is an intern at the Society Programme at the Finnish Institute in London. She studies Sociology at the University of Helsinki. Her interests include feminism, the economy and creating an equal working life for all. 


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