In Brief

Britain faces ‘return to Victorian inequality’

TUC report says UK is at risk of reverting to 19th-century conditions

The UK faces a return to the working conditions of the Victorian age, the head of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has warned.

Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary, told The Guardian: “We’re at risk of going back to 19th-century working conditions. Millions of workers have no control and no voice at work, with increasing numbers stuck on low pay, zero-hours contracts, and in sham self-employment.”

In a snapshot of the UK workforce, a new report from the TUC found there were 3.7 million people in insecure work and 1.85 million self-employed people earning less than the minimum wage. Workers are still facing the longest pay squeeze for 200 years, it added, despite reports of a recent pick-up in pay.

It found that the share of economic output allotted to wages had sunk from an average of 57% in the three decades after the Second World War to 49% in 2018.

Simultaneously, said the TUC, anti-trade union laws and industrial change had resulted in union membership and collective bargaining coverage falling – from 54% and 70% in 1979 to just 23% and 26% respectively last year.

O’Grady argued that unions must get greater powers to organise and negotiate.

She said: “We urgently need to reset the balance of power in our economy and give people more of a say about what happens to them at work. We know that collective bargaining is the best way to raise wages and improve conditions – so let’s expand it across the whole workforce.”

Personnel Today said the TUC is in favour of “a similar model to New Zealand”, where unions are allowed access to all workplaces to tell employees about the benefits of union membership.

The TUC’s study also concluded that low wages are linked to unsecured borrowing hitting record levels. One in five families are stuck in problem debt, leading O’Grady to state: “We need to rebuild family finances or we are stuffed. This has always been the canary in the mine.”

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