Waged work in Britain is being transformed: permanent full-time jobs decline as precarious irregular task-based employment increases. This development is actively supported by government policy (labour market deregulation, the promotion of ‘flexibility’), to promote work as the sole route out of poverty. Using historical evidence, this article argues that, on the contrary, irregular employment was for long understood as a primary cause of poverty, not its cure. It thus generates high levels of social dependency. The UK’s earliest labour market policies sought to eradicate casual work and to encourage permanent employment – policies promoted assiduously for most of the twentieth century. Current governments are recreating the labour markets of the late nineteenth century, the conditions that stimulated state intervention in the first place. Three salient points arise. First, irregular employment exacerbates widening social inequalities. Second, it damages public trust. Employers evade employment obligations for task-based workers while state regulations require job-seekers to take on this work. Third, multiple job-holding and unstable employment destroys labour market categories on which policy analysis and the law rely. Legal frameworks governing employment rights are weakened and public understanding of labour markets is undermined.
International Journal of Comparative Labour Law and Industrial Relations