Contributor: Ian MacArthur, Director of the Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter (Written 17 Dec 2021)
It’s the week before Christmas – and the world has changed. If you took the hand of the ghostly Jacob Marley and revisit the city two years ago – the streets were full of merrymakers, shoppers, and market stalls and no-one gave a thought to facemasks, hand sanitizer, and social distancing – yet the spectre of coronavirus was only weeks away. If you looked even closer back then you would see city workers spilling out of their glass and steel cathedrals built on the highly valued sectors of finance, professional services, tech, digital, and life science. Workers with good, well-paid jobs signaling all the hallmarks of agglomerated growth and prosperity.
But Marley’s ghost, just as the pandemic has done, would also reveal to you the unseen low-skilled low paid workforce that kept all of this running. The baristas, the bar staff, the shopworker, the cleaner, the security, logistics and waste staff, and not to forget the carers working in the community looking after our old and infirm. Marley would show you the inequities that a long tail of low productivity brings. Without the pandemic creating the time and space to reflect on these things, our notion of creating something better would probably have been lost.
If Dickens’ second ghost visited and took you to our Christmas Past – the streets of 2020 now represent something akin to an apocalyptic movie set – many empty and boarded up – city workers now at home hunched over laptops or living in fear of furlough and all wrestling with the uncertainty of what happens next. The world of work turned on its head – and after the novelty and adrenalin had worn off most are exhausted, and all are aware of a growing toll on our collective mental wellbeing.
Meanwhile, our now renamed ‘key workers’ kept our supermarkets open, our newfound online shopping habits delivered, and most importantly they continued to care for our sick and elderly. But what choice did they have? They had none. The enduring precarious working conditions and low pay meant that they kept working throughout – even if they felt ill - because otherwise, they would not earn. Public health is compromised, and our collective resilience is undermined because of insecure low-paid work.
If we move to today – what has changed? Well, the ghost of Christmas Present could rerun much of what we’ve seen already, some 12 months ago. But there are subtle differences. Yes, there is a growing sense of frustration in all quarters, but there is also now a deeper sense that change must happen. The dynamic of the Labour market has completely flipped, and many employees now feel better informed and empowered to call for working conditions that not only balance with their own life needs and wellbeing – but can also lead to more productivity for their employer.
However, inequalities across our working population doggedly persist. The reports published this year by Kate Pickett’s Inequalities Commission and Prof Michael Marmot’s Review of Health Inequalities emphasise that the growing divide in working conditions (and other determinants) is not just morally wrong for those whose service and work we rely on, but simply they also undermine our vision of a fair city region for all.
So, what can our fourth Ghost show us of the Future? It’s a future where the Good Employment Charter is ready to play its full part. Where the community of 450 plus committed employers that has been built around the Charter, are prepared to become exemplars of the best well-managed employment practices that provide opportunities for all, recognise the importance of employee voice, that pay fairly (including sick pay), that deliver secure yet flexible work and essentially place the health and wellbeing of their staff at the centre of what they do. The Charter will continue to act as the catalyst of this movement, driving out inequalities and supporting employers to continually improve their best practices.
Like Scrooge in Dickens’ famous tale, we must learn from the perspectives of the past and resolve to build our future in a more resilient and fairer way. Joining the Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter movement would be a great way to fulfill that resolution in the New Year.