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Any genuine attempt to level up Britain must start with levelling up work

3 min read

I lost count of how many times the promise to “level up” was repeated during Conservative Party conference. But despite all the hype and sloganeering, Boris Johnson and his government still don’t have a serious plan for raising living standards and tackling inequalities in Britain.

So, what should “levelling up” really mean in practice and how should the government be judged against it?

Yesterday, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) published a major report on our key tests for levelling up the country.

We believe that any genuine attempt to level up Britain must start with levelling up work. Low pay and insecure work are endemic throughout the UK – not just in red wall seats, not just in the north and Midlands.

More than one in seven jobs in every region and nation pays less than the real Living Wage. Over half of families in poverty today are working families. And across the workforce as a whole, 3.6 million people are trapped in jobs that offer little or no job security.

Without a proper plan, millions will struggle on, on low wages, with poor health and prospects

Top of the list for the levelling up agenda should be to level up jobs. That means stronger employment rights for everyone and a higher minimum wage.

But merely raising the floor will not be enough. To raise wages throughout the labour market, we must make it easier for workers to come together in unions to bargain with employers for better pay and conditions. The way to do that is to give trade unions greater access to workplaces – and bring in sector-wide bargaining.

It’s not just me saying this. The OECD and governments across the world, from the US to New Zealand, have recognised the key role collective bargaining can play in reducing inequality and giving people security at work. 

Alongside negotiating with individual employers, industry-wide fair pay agreements would transform the lives of millions by setting minimum standards – on pay, training, freedom from discrimination, health and safety – and prevent good employers from being undercut by the bad. And they would help ease staffing shortages in under-pressure sectors like logistics, food production and social care, by making those industries better places to work.

People need good jobs that they can build a life on close to home. Investing in public services, green transport and infrastructure across the country is vital – especially as we transition to a net-zero economy. But talking big is not enough. We need to reform our economy so that good-quality work is hard-wired into economic growth.

And the government – as the UK’s largest employer – should lead by example by ending the freeze on public sector pay that is holding down pay for millions of key workers in every town and city in the country. Instead, it should put decent work at the heart of its public investment and procurement policies and bring public sector jobs back in-house on decent pay and conditions.

Without a proper plan, millions will struggle on, on low wages, with poor health and prospects. Working families want the government to show much more ambition.

Sooner or later, ministers will have to answer to the country. Is levelling up just talk? Or is it about making a real difference to pay packets, job quality and security at work.


Frances O’Grady is General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). 

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