Summer 2020 - Page 5

Facing the heightened competition of globalising markets, employers need labour flexibility, according to the OECD’s Stijn Broecke, “to deal with fluctuations in demand, to address risks, and to grab opportunities.” Diverse and flexible employment arrangements give employers greater agility at a much lower cost than they would have with a workforce dominated by “inflexible” contracts. Few would dispute this. The controversy is around whether these diverse forms of employment are good for workers, who might face heightened economic risks and sometimes lower access to social protection. Complicating matters in some countries, according to Matthew Taylor, is a “fuzzy boundary between work, self-employment, and casualisation”. Highprofile lawsuits in the US and Europe related to the employment status of those platform workers remind us that the search for labour flexibility can be a contested process, where both sides claim the support of the law. Taylor’s recent UK government review of working practices in the modern economy recommended legal changes around employment status so that workers and companies have a clearer set of rules and mutual expectations. But he also believes that applying current law could go a long way towards preventing misclassification: “Even when recognising the boundary can be blurred, for most people you can distinguish between employment categories.” Social protection is an essential partner to flexibility. The same market volatility that makes labour flexibility essential for companies also makes social protection essential for workers. “You can’t ask people to take risks if all the risks fall on their shoulders” without compensating benefits, says Philip Jennings. He therefore expects “a rebirth of the idea of a universal social protection net and a reconsideration of what it looks like. It won’t just be about keeping poverty away, but also about how we can accompany people through the dislocations to come.” This will not only be important for individuals. Companies will soon be facing smaller, ageing workforces in European and Asian countries. What they offer potential talent, including around social protection, will have to be sufficiently attractive to a wider age range. Social cohesion will also demand answers to social protection challenges. If a larger number of millennials, for example, compared with other generations, are interested in diverse forms of work, says Rebekah Smith,“ We have to ensure that there is intergenerational solidarity – that the generations just coming into the labour market have adequate access to social protection but in an economically sustainable way.” A New Social Contract: Who Pays? One of the strengths of direct, open-ended, fulltime employment contracts is their legal clarity about who shoulders the various risks that social protections are designed to address. This sort of clarity is often lacking for other forms of work. With their share in the marketplace increasing, it’s crucial to decide how to strike that social bargain. The demands of flexibility and social protection are currently discussed as if they were in opposition. “The big question that comes out of this is who bears responsibility for offering certain types of flexibility and for certain types of social protection?” says Professor Mark Stuart. “Who’s going to cover the costs?” Bettina Schaller adds that any potential solution to these questions faces two further challenges: “Is the funding sustainable in a broader societal discussion, and is it going to actually stand the test of time?” Without a solution, those not covered by social protection may have to fall back on the last resort of the state. Stijn Broecke points out that this will be funded by general taxation, so firms that use diverse forms of working arrangements to avoid providing social protection could end up paying for it anyway through higher taxation. Let’s Write a New Social Contract Behind the differences of national systems, we are on a shared, universal quest; to provide adequate social safety nets to everyone in need – regardless of employment status or any other difference. In a changing world of work, this demands a fresh way of looking at what work means, in all its forms – from full-time, open-ended contracts or part-