As rapid digitalisation and fragmented employment throws millions of workers into uncertainty, the country’s biggest union, Unite, is urging unions to consider a universal basic income as part of wider reforms to social security and to make work pay.
The call comes as unions debate the impact of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ and the changes to the benefit system which have inspired a rise of in-work poverty at this year’s Trades Union Congress in Brighton.
France, the Netherlands and Finland are currently considering basic income pilots. A poll in May this year found that 65 per cent of Europeans polled would back the idea.
Steve Turner, Unite assistant general secretary, who has led the union’s fight to change the abusive working practices at Sports Direct, told Congress: “Conservative austerity has had obscene results. It has isolated and attacked those in need of benefits, caused food banks to become a common-place feature of national life and sent millions begging at the doors of pay day lenders. The grim truth is that more and more people in work are one pay cheque away from poverty.
“We have to stand up against these dehumanising cuts and their counterparts in degrading workfare and disability assessment schemes.
“But we also need to recognise that work is changing. Millions of jobs are being lost to automation and technological advances, whether it is drone delivery or the digitalisation of clerical work.
“In the face of this uncertainty and fragmentation the job of unions is to fight for decent work, but also for a decent income for those locked out of work.
“This is not about the state subsidising those employers who refuse to pay a living wage – we are not about letting bad bosses off the hook.
“But the labour movement must lead the debate on how we give people an income on which they can live. We cannot leave it to the Tories, devotees of austerity, to define the terms of our world of work.
“There is a debate to be had about the emerging economy and how it allows us all to participate. We must seize this moment to ensure that the values of trade unions – of fairness, equality and decent treatment – underpin that debate.
“Ours is a rapidly changing world. We must face up to the fact that traditional work and income relationships are under attack. As we fight for decent employment and a redistribution of wealth, a basic income could have a place. To quote Victor Hugo, 'nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come’.”
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Notes to editors:
- Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union with over 1.4 million members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.