SPERI-WOERRC workshop: real recovery will require decent work

workshop-labour-unfreedomAcademics and labour market experts from across the UK met in Sheffield on May 26-27, 2016 for a workshop hosted by SPERI and WOERRC (Work Organisation and Employment Relations Research Centre) and funded by the ESRC.

The papers presented uncovered the impacts of the austerity-based recovery model on the domestic labour market, as well as on labour conditions in global supply chains led by UK-based firms. Bringing together an interdisciplinary group of scholars of the ‘normal’ labour market and of forced labour, human trafficking, and modern slavery, this workshop deepened understandings of the wide-ranging effects of ‘recovery policy’ on labor conditions and unfreedom.

A clear finding was that the recovery and record profits experienced by businesses in the wake of the 2008-2009 financial crisis are not being passed onto workers. Rather, across a range of industries — including the UK’s construction, food, and garment sectors — persistently low wages and endemic wage theft means that even those in full-time employment are struggling to make ends meet.  Several papers documented high vulnerability to labour exploitation and forced labour amongst migrants, women, and low-waged workers. The research presented revealed that while big business’ share of the profit is getting larger, workers are taking home a dangerously low and unsustainable share as wages. Concerns were raised that this situation is becoming costly to the government and taxpayers, given clear evidence that employed citizens are claiming benefits due to being illegally underpaid.

To address these issues, researchers stressed the importance of strengthening enforcement of labour laws  especially in regards to health and safety standards and wages — through public inspectorates, and the need to rebalance businesses and workers share of value along the supply chain.

Through a blog series — to be co-published this summer on SPERI Comment and openDemocracy.net — presenters will disseminate the research presented at the workshop widely to the public. A collaborative academic publication is also in progress.