Writing in the last bulletin the IPA Director Nita Clarke posed a challenging question.

“Post Covid what should be the IPA’s role in the emerging world of work?” As we go forward, the employment landscape in the UK looks stark. Unemployment is set to reach levels not seen since the 1930s. Whole sectors of the economy look to be in free fall.

We have also known for many years that in some sectors poor working conditions are commonplace. COVID outbreaks have simply made these more transparent. As a nation we are being forced to face up to realities which, deep down, we already knew.

Workers in care homes (not all,  but a worrying proportion), in food processing ( from the field to the supermarket shelf) and in garment manufacture (highlighted in Nita’s recent piece) have had a pretty rough deal. The shortcomings which the pandemic has  highlighted have not sprung up recently. They have been hard wired into such sectors for a long time. For those who work there,  the concept of ‘Good Work’ has passed them by.

The IPA has spent many years, fighting to improve the quality of work , for the individual worker, for the organisation that employs them, and for the economy as a whole. There have been notable successes.  We fostered new ideas like employee share ownership and, for decades, the IPA pushed hard to give workers greater involvement in decisions in their workplace. In the 1990s we made a major contribution to achieving a sea change in management/trade union relations through the Partnership agenda.

Much progress has been achieved, but the IPA’s success has relied on the generally benign economic and political climate. Since the War as one looked to the future, the sun shone on the horizon.

Today this is no longer the case, the horizon is black with storm clouds. Within  a few months the entire UK economy has fallen back to where we were in the 1970s. To avoid economic meltdown the government has racked up eye watering levels of debt which will cripple generations to come. Unemployment is rising fast and will grow exponentially when furlough ends. Much of the pain will be felt by young workers working in the sectors where employment  stability has ceased to have any meaning, the world of casualisation, zero hours contracts, and fragile ‘self employment’ .

As a result any predictions must, of necessity be very cautious. I want to concentrate on three quite specific areas where the IPA has played a role in the past. These are

-           Partnership between the social partners

-           Enhancing the quality of Work

-           Legal and Statutory frameworks at the workplace


Partnership enabled many organisations and their workforce to address , and usually resolve, difficult challenges. These were often  due to changing markets, competition and overcapacity. Partnership broke the logjam which in the 1980s was strangling the UK economy. However, even in the good times,  it could not save every business. Three partnership champions with whom I worked closely come to mind. ICI, Blue Circle Cement and Littlewoods have all gone.

Today the UK faces yet greater challenges. Erstwhile Blue chip businesses in sectors like aerospace or airline operation face the real possibility of closing down for good. What will be the role of management/union relationships in fighting our way through the post COVID economic turmoil?

We already see unions such as BALPA deploying all their skills and bargaining strength to get the least painful outcome achievable for their pilot members. However in the private sector union membership is much reduced on its level 30 years ago. For every BALPA member whose union successfully protects their job, there are dozens of Baristas across the land who lack even rudimentary back up and who are losing their job daily.

Many of the worst job losses are in the newest sectors of the economy, hospitality and services. Here union membership is negligible. Even the concept of a workforce, a community of people working together in a shared activity, is disappearing fast.

The only part of the economy where there is much likelihood that coming challenges will be worked through and resolved collectively is the public sector. This should bode well for workers in the NHS who are looking for a secure and better paid future. Many are hoping that the public will back up their outpourings of gratitude during the worst days of lockdown with something tangible.

The IPA must push hard  to maximise awareness of examples where management and unions or worker representatives working together have helped to minimise the pain and damage as organisations struggle to survive in these turbulent times.

Elsewhere the crisis has shone a searching torchlight on the quality of jobs. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the care sector. Here many thousands of employees have toiled for years in poorly paid roles, working in under resourced organisations and grappling with an ever rising caseload of the elderly and infirm. The crisis is acknowledged but its resolution seems intractable.

For many years there has been a debate under the banner of “Good Work”. Much research has taken place and many reports have been written.  Policies have been tabled and commitments given, under successive governments of different hues. Evidence of progress towards good work practices on the Scandinavian model was patchy.

Meanwhile the inexorable march of zero hours contracts, gang masters, sweatshops and pizza deliveries by bike continues. I see little prospect of a reversal in the years ahead. With vacancies at a record low,  increasingly desperate job seekers will take whatever job conditions are on offer. The IPA and its allies must now focus on minimising a worsening of working practices. Good Work will,  for the foreseeable future,  be  about holding the line wherever possible.

Maintaining proper employment conditions will, in turn, demand much greater reliance on the law to help uphold minimum standards. Pressure is mounting on working conditions, contractual entitlements, or employee input into decisions. This pressure  will carry on growing. 

It is easy to forget how recently much of the legal framework which we now take for granted came into force. Health and Safety, TUPE, contractual protection, dispute resolution, and other rights such as maternity leave or information and consultation have only been around for a few decades. Legal rights at work have been the great success story of the last 50 years. Over the years ahead we will see the greatest test, so far,  of how effectively  these provisions  can protect the British workforce in times of trouble.

One can already see in Spain post 2008 how easily a workforce can split into two parts. Firstly one finds an older group in more secure, reasonably well protected jobs. Secondly there exists a younger group, often not working, and operating in a more fragile and vulnerable  work environment when they do.

Indications are that this division is growing in the UK  too. Post COVID, the economic climate will exacerbate this process. Advocating good practice alone is not enough when things get tough. The law needs to be seen as a key line of defence. The IPA is well placed to identify where the legal framework needs to be tightened. It should also push, where necessary, for more robust implementation of existing laws. 

Finally the IPA has the standing and credibility to marshal progressive forces across the world of work. Be they in our workplaces or institutions, amongst social partners and opinion leaders they need to come together to push back against any downward spiral in workplace standards or slackening of legal protection. Building this coalition and setting the agenda will be the IPA’s key task for the coming years.

Willy Coupar was Director of the IPA 2000-2008