Comparative employment relations research, the “slow” way

Phil Almond, Director of the Comparative Employment Research Centre (CERC) argues the case for “slower” forms of cross-national comparative research

A large volume of research in employment relations and human resource management makes claims to contribute to knowledge through cross-national comparisons. In a paper published in 2013 with Maria Gonzalez, we found 179 papers published in top IR/HR journals which had some claim to be making explicit cross-national comparisons in labour management.

However, it is not always the case that comparative research is based on an in-depth knowledge of the dynamics of the societies under investigation. Indeed, much comparative research is rather ‘thin’ in its approach to local social context, cross-sectional in nature, and very standardised in its approach from one country to another. This contrasts with a much more ‘deep’ tradition of comparative research, which has always had much more interest in developing a contextual understanding of national society, history and culture.

In work with CERC colleague Heather Connolly, we have argued the case for ‘slow’  strategies in cross-national comparisons. ‘Slow’ comparison is based on a long-term, in-depth engagement with the social contexts under study, in order to gain deeper and more reliable insights into the nature of, and reasons for, cross-national differences and similarities. This requires a kind of ‘implicit ethnography’, even (or perhaps especially) for researchers such as myself whose formal research methods are non-ethnographic.

We decided to present this argument as a ‘manifesto’ as this type of research faces difficulties in the rather ‘fast’ world of the neo-liberal Academy – funders want fast answers, universities want defined projects and rapid publication and rarely understand more iterative processes of knowledge production, and even doctoral students frequently face constraints on their ability to spend long periods of time researching abroad. Our argument is not that ‘thin’ or ‘fast’ methods of comparison lack value; our argument is that the ecology of comparative research in IR/HR would benefit from a better balance better faster and slower means of comparison.

The basic differences between thin and deep approaches, and fast and slow research strategies, are presented below. For further details, please consult the full paper.

Thin approach

Variable/contingency-driven approach


More interest in transversal knowledge of subject area than of deep understanding of national societies.



Deep approach

Problematises “thin” ideas of comparability of standardised variables


Argues for need to understand ‘interlockages’ between complexes of variables across national societies


More interest in contextual understanding of national society/history/culture


Fast strategy Slow strategy
Standardised questions (both in quantitative and qualitative research), relatively little deviation from methodological approaches used in non-comparative research.


High tolerance of typologies


Maximise ‘superficial’ comparability of respondents


Perceives little need to acquire in-depth, on the ground understanding of national social dynamics. Low “societal reflexivity”


High degree of closure of projects


Much more iterative process, tolerant of variation in methodology in different societal contexts.


Suspicious of typologies, seeks to access and evaluate counter-narratives.


Much less concerned with formal comparability of respondents; opportunist approach to data


Sees geographical context as very important, seeks to develop (implicit) ethnography of societies. High “societal reflexivity”


Low degree of closure of projects

Precepts of slow comparitivism

In an attempt to provide a starting point for a fuller discussion on the methods used by slow comparativists, we developed a number of basic precepts of slow comparativism as a practical methodological approach. These are:

i) speaking the “language” – This fairly obvious precept applies both literally and metaphorically. Even if research subjects are able and willing to communicate in a lingua franca, the social context does not follow suit. For the great comparative historian Benedict Anderson, “When you start to live in a country whose language you understand barely or not at all, you are obviously not in a good position to think comparatively, because you have little access to the local culture…You cannot avoid making comparisons, but these are likely to be superficial and naïve”. To this, we would add that assuming comparability of meaning of terminology is a mistake to be avoided even in the same language, and this particularly applies if research subjects are likely to depart substantially from standard formal language.

ii) immersion – This refers to the ‘slow’ process of accessing the ‘common sense’ of relevant actors. A slow research strategy places value on time spent in the societies under study to acquire local meanings, and requires fieldwork to be seen as a much more encompassing process than just what happens in formal research settings such as interviews. Leads are often indirect, and valuable evidence can be acquired by informal conversations with relevant (or semi-relevant) people, and simply by developing, on an informal basis, a somewhat ethnographic approach to one’s interactions with the wider society. Relevant voices may not necessarily be exactly the same categories of people in different societies, and that a degree of idiosyncrasy has to be tolerated – and indeed encouraged – in slow comparative research. In other words, a slow comparativist needs to develop an ‘always on’ mentality, alert to the possibility that valuable background can by acquired in somewhat idiosyncratic ways.

iii) part-alienation and reflexiveness – the researcher must develop the capacity to distance him/herself sufficiently from the socialised rationalities of their own (or, for that matter, any other) country, ideally before finalising formal research instruments. This process is indispensable if research is to seek to avoid ethnocentrism. A good slow comparativist needs to develop an understanding of the various social logics relevant to the research questions that s/he is trying to resolve, but needs to inoculate against over-identification in order to try to avoid ethnocentrism.

iv) the ‘federal’ nature of comparative projects – a real problem, as argued in somewhat different terms by Richard Hyman, is that attempts at ‘deep’, ‘slow’ comparison often face difficulties in presenting structures and actor strategies in different societies as ‘comparable enough’ for comparison to work. To try to resolve this, it is often useful to think about fieldwork in different countries as constituting linked, but to some extent separable, projects. This argument is based on a position that non-comparability has in itself to be an object of a comparative research programme. It is important to discover what is absent, as well as what is present, in specific societies; for Anderson “what you will start to notice, if your ears and eyes are open, are the things you can’t see or hear. You will begin to notice what is not there as well as what is there, just as you will become aware of what is unwritten as well as what is written”.

Mitigating against the problem of non-comparability requires the slow comparativist to find a means of dancing between the requirement for some degree of ‘meta-comparability’ (i.e. a thematic unity across countries) and societal specifics at a more granular level. A degree of messiness in relation to the demands of positive science for precise comparison has to be tolerated, and indeed encouraged, in these efforts.

These precepts are a starting point for further debate, rather than a complete answer. However it is hoped that they provide a defence for obtaining deep contextual understanding in the first place, and some basic indications as to how ‘slow’ comparativism might achieve this.


Phil Almond is Director of the Comparative Employment Research Centre (CERC) at DMU.

His research interests are in the theoretical and practical challenges of the governance ofalmond work and employment in contemporary global capitalism, with specific expertise on the social relations of multinationals. He was Principal Investigator on an ESRC project on regions, multinationals and human resources, and is currently working on an ESRC project on ‘globalising actors’ in multinationals.











Labour struggles and acts of physical and symbolic violence

On November 30th 2016 suspended sentences were handed down by a French court to three former Air France employees.  The three men received the sentences after having been found guilty of violent conduct for having attacked two Air France executives after a works council meeting a year earlier where the company announced jobs cuts and restructuring plans.  The images of the ‘shirt ripping’ of the executives made headlines worldwide. There was much condemnation in the press and from the government but some sources also reported that while the public condemned the physical violence they also understood the reasons for it.


The ‘physical violence’ of the employees has been juxtaposed with the ‘social violence’ being inflicted on the employees who were being forced to accept job losses and restructuring.  Bourdieu’s concept of ‘symbolic violence’ is useful for understanding the context in which workers take such desperate measures.  This of course not only applies to the Air France case but can be used more widely to understand worker responses to the ‘symbolic violence’ experienced as a result of the negative externalities within increasingly intensified systems of financialised capitalism.  What makes the Air France case most interesting is the fact that an act of physical violence by employees provoked debate around the physical and symbolic manifestations of ‘violence’.


First some detail on the case itself.  On Monday 5th October 2015 Air France employees broke down the gate of the perimeter fence at the company headquarters near Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.  This gate was normally open and in the later court hearing the defence argued that padlocking the gate on the day of the works council meeting was a ‘provocation’.  After breaking through the gate, around 100 workers broke into the conference room where management officials were unveiling the restructuring plan to the company’s works council.


The large scale restructuring plan by Air France, which employs about 55,000 people, would have meant 2,900 redundancies in 2016 and 2017.  Air France-KLM returned to profit in 2015 after seven years of losses, but still faces stiff competition from Asian and Gulf airlines as well as new, low-cost long-haul alternatives and so has set out to make €1.8bn (£1.3bn) savings.  After several weeks of negotiations no agreement was reached as Air France management set conditions which were impossible for the unions to accept.  The company demanded that pilots work an extra 200 hours a year for the same salary; several routes would be closed; and 400 pilots made redundant.  Alexandre de Juniac, the Air France-KLM chief executive, announced that the company would go ahead with the cuts and redundancies regardless of the outcome of the negotiations.


So on the October 5th 2015, as the negotiations had been making no progress, the staff at the works council meeting became angry, and tussled with some company officials.  As well as human resources boss, Xavier Broseta, another executive, Pierre Plissonnier, had his shirt and jacket torn in the incident.  Guards employed by the company were also injured in the melee.  The French prime minister, Manuel Valls, said the men, whom he labelled ‘rogues’, should be given stiff sentences.  After the action by employees, the restructuring proposals were dropped.


In total 16 employees went on trial in September 2016 for their part in the incident.  Five men were accused of violence towards the executives as well as a security guard and bodyguards.  Eleven others were on trial for criminal damage for forcing open metal barriers outside the building.  On November 30th the court gave three men suspended sentences of three to four months for ‘organised violence’, while two others were found not guilty.  The eleven other employees were handed €500 fines for property damage.


Direct action has been a relatively common feature of French trade unionism within traditions of anarcho-syndicalism.  However this action was viewed as going beyond ‘boss-napping’ and strikes, particularly from the way the acts of ‘physical violence’ were reported in the media.


On the flip side, how should we interpret the acts undertaken by the Air France management in this case and to what extent are they acts of ‘symbolic violence’?  Bourdieu refers to symbolic violence as relations and mechanisms of domination and power which do not arise from overt physical force or violence on the body.  Keith Topper’s analysis is worth highlighting: Symbolic violence clearly lacks the intentional and instrumental quality of brute violence, and works not directly on bodies but through them…by extending the concept of violence to the symbolic domain, Bourdieu spotlights an often unnoticed mechanism for instituting or reproducing relations of domination.  And to the extent that such mechanisms go unnoticed they remain outside the purview of political deliberations or remedial action’.


While ‘overt violence’, as we see in the Air France case, attracts social disapproval and unwanted consequences, symbolic violence is a more efficient and effective mode of domination as in disguising the true nature of the relationship, it forestalls any such reactions.  As Richard Jenkins points out, symbolic violence is the imposition of systems of symbolism and meaning (i.e. culture) upon groups or classes in such a way that they are experienced as legitimate.  This legitimacy obscures the power relations, which permit that imposition to be successful.


Thus the insidious and invisible nature of symbolic violence as a mode of domination which acts upon employees within capitalist systems, in this interpretation, but which goes unrecognised, is important.  Symbolic violence is embedded in normal routines of everyday (working) lives and shapes social experiences and subjectivities in myriad ways.  This suggests the need for a broader understanding and conceptualisation of ‘violence’, including its symbolic manifestations.


There are multiple and often hidden costs of unemployment and poor working conditions.  These costs extend to so-called flexible forms of employment and a ‘disposable labour model’ which are often heralded as the answer to solving productivity problems and economic growth.


Back in the UK, during December and over the New Year period there has been industrial action involving postal and railway workers (among others).  The actions have been described as ‘vindictive’ and designed to bring ‘maximum damage and disruption’.  Again, underlying much of this is the ‘symbolic violence’ that workers are subjected to through the undermining of existing terms and conditions in the case of railway workers, and the constant restructuring of business activities in the case of the Post Office.


As we see in the Air France case, the build-up of symbolic violence experienced as a result of the vagaries of financialised capitalism, including constant restructuring, intransigent management and threats of redundancies, leads some to take desperate measures in desperate times.

Heather Connolly is Reader in European Employment Relations, and co-director of the ComparativeHeather-Connolly-100 Employment Research Centre (CERC) within CROWE. 

This post was originally published on the SPERI blog, University of Sheffield.

Industrial politics and global production networks: first, don’t make things worse

Current debates over the future of the UK’s relations with the EU seem to be taking place with a limited appreciation of how international productive capitalism works in a globalised economy. Some on the Right argue that being outside the single European market is likely to be a catalyst to trade with the rest of the world, without explaining how this might be the case. Some in the Labour Party argue for a ‘hard Brexit’ on protectionist grounds.  Both ignore the complexities of how the international production of goods and services works. It is therefore worth recapping what we know about competition between countries and regions in global production networks, and how this has developed. Our focus here is on Europe and North America, as globalisation processes have somewhat different outcomes in the Global South.

The post-war internationalisation of production was done mainly by industrial firms with fairly integrated production systems. They benefitted from national markets which were protected by tariff and other trade barriers. These firms made monopoly rents on their domestic production. Where labour movements, or political pressures, were strong enough, these translated into rising real wages. To differing extents in different places, states and capitalists often came to support rising real wages, in order to boost demand.

Some of these firms sought to expand production beyond their national borders. This was done for a variety of reasons: to exploit national differences in wage levels, to reduce transportation costs, and to avoid tariffs and other trade barriers by opening branch plants. Branch plants basically reproduced domestic production for a foreign market. They did not generally engage in much R&D or other high value-added activities.

“Branches” continue to exist where product market access requires them to. Walmart, for example, obviously needs to open large stores outside the USA. However, in general, ‘production’, whether of goods or services, is increasingly fragmented. This has been enabled by the growth of economies outside the Global North, the liberalisation of global trade, the building of continental markets in Europe and North America, financial globalisation, and by technological advances.  Fragmentation refers to two things:

organisational fragmentation – lead firms increasingly outsource large parts of the processes by which they create value. Outsourcing once mainly concerned relatively peripheral parts of firms’ value chains. However in recent years it has extended to previously ‘core’ functions such as manufacturing and R&D.

geographical fragmentation – firms have become increasingly able to locate their production across a wider range of geographies.  This means they can make very fine-grained decisions about where to perform different elements of their production processes. This geographical fragmentation sometimes takes place within multinationals, and sometimes outside them, in wider production networks.

An example of this can be seen in the travels undergone by just one component, a fuel injector for diesel lorries manufactured by the US-owned component maker Delphi. As the FT’s Peter Campbell writes:

“This part uses steel from Europe which is machined in the UK before going to Germany for special heat treatment. The injector is then assembled at Delphi’s UK plant in Stonehouse, Gloucestershire, before being sold on to truckmakers based in Sweden, France or Germany. If the resulting truck is sold into the UK market, the component or materials used in it will have crossed the Channel five times before the lorry is ever driven by the customer”.

Places – countries, regions, cities and towns – then compete to be the best location for specific activities. This is sometimes on a global basis, but perhaps more often at the level of continents. Different countries, and different regions within countries, may have different advantages. These might include, among other things, cost, light regulation, low tax, but also access to skills, to innovation systems, and access to markets.

Specific places may have well-known forms of advantage in this competition. So for instance Germany is often seen as having advantages in complex manufacturing through its high-quality training system, and relatively participative patterns of work organisation. However, being competitive, whether through ‘high road’ high quality, high wage approaches, or low road, low cost approaches, is not as simple as building competitive forms of labour and other regulation. It is also about continual processes of adaptation, as places continually try to boost their competitiveness by building relations with international firms. For example, in our research into multinationals and regional development, we examined an old industrial region in Spain (Asturias). This had excellent engineering education developed through its long history as a mining region. It was able to repurpose this in order to establish a high-end global R&D centre for a German multinational originally attracted to the region to perform lower-value assembly work. This process involved civil servants, a university, trade unions and various employer organisations.

Such processes of adaptation are necessary because lead firms have the capacity to make fine-grained decisions about the geographical and organisational location of their activities. This means that subsidiary units increasingly compete to exercise functions on an international basis. This is sometimes referred to as ‘mandate competition’. Units which are unsuccessful in these contests face dim prospects in cases where access to markets no longer requires the existence of national ‘branches’. This process also occurs, in a slightly different way, in external firms that the multinational has close links to.

In previous work, we have argued that this results in ‘regime shopping’. In other words, firms play the regulations and fiscal regimes of countries and regions off against each other.  It also leads to ‘resource shopping’. This describes the process of firms seeking places where the most ‘positive’ resource combinations are available for specific tasks.

To be clear, ‘regime shopping’ is clearly problematic.  It puts pressure on wages, on trade unions, and on the tax base of nations. Equally, we may object to vital public services being organised in private hands as a result of liberal regulation.

However, identifying that something about contemporary capitalism has bad consequences is quite a long way from finding a remedy for it. Having researched this subject in Canada, it is very clear that the game of attracting firms to countries and regions is very much dirtier in North America. This is because NAFTA is a much less regulated market for state support of firms than the European Union is. This enables overt competition on the grounds of high-subsidy, anti-union arrangements.

Britain is currently embarking on a process of striking a new round of deals with multinationals. It does so in a context of marked uncertainty about regulation. It is difficult to see how opaque deals such as that apparently reached with Nissan are likely to be more socially progressive than what they replace. Such deals are going to have to be reached with any firm with a loud enough voice.  This is likely to happen quite a lot in the case of a ‘hard Brexit’: from the firms’ perspective, gains from these negotiations simply compensate for the lost advantage of single market access.

Avoiding models of international competition built on worse outcomes for workers and the public has to be an international enterprise. This is, of course, difficult at the best of times. However, global production networks are not about to be abolished. The problems of regime shopping in general will be worsened, not cured, by attempts to build ‘walls’.

Some of the arguments here are developed in Almond, Gonzalez, Lavelle and Murray, ‘The Local in the Global: Regions, Employment Systems and Multinationals’, forthcoming in the Industrial Relations Journal, and in Almond and Gonzalez (2014) ‘Geography and International HRM’ in the Routledge Companion to International Human Resource Management.

Phil Almond is Director of the Comparative Employment Research Centre (CERC) at DMU.

His research interests are in the theoretical and practical challenges of the governance of almondwork and employment in contemporary global capitalism, with specific expertise on the social relations of multinationals. He was Principal Investigator on an ESRC project on regions, multinationals and human resources, and is currently working on an ESRC project on ‘globalising actors’ in multinationals.


Is skills development the answer to economic and social upgradation in the Global South? Some reflections on evidence from India

Anita Hammer reflects on the skills debate, and identifies the obstacles to the development of competitive skills ecosystems in the context of the political economy of India.

Skills are considered the answer to economic development and reduction in inequality in industrialised as well as industrialising societies. Not surprisingly, skill development has attracted considerable attention from policy makers in India, e.g. the formation of the National Skill Development Council to coordinate skill development and various public-private partnership initiatives on skill formation. The policy changes in India, evident in the National Skill Development Policy 2009, are in line with strategies elsewhere: skill formation and upgrading has assumed a critical role with increased global competition, either as a means to retain competitive advantage by industrialised economies or to upgrade by emerging economies.


India has witnessed an impressive increase in GDP growth over the last two decades. At the same time, it is undergoing a demographic shift i.e. an increase in the share of working-age population in total population. With a working age labour force of 431 million (those aged between 15 and 59 years) in the total labour force of 470 million (NSSO 2009-10), the challenge is employment creation and skills upgrading of the existing as well as growing workforce. The National Skill Development Policy 2009 set a target of 500 million to be skilled by 2022, with the Twelfth Plan (2012-17) target of skilling at least 50 million people by 2016-17. Indeed the fear is that if the skills challenge is not met within the next decade, India may not be able to sustain growth and it may leave large numbers among the increasingly youthful labour force unemployed with all its attendant negative implications for equality and social cohesion (Mehrotra et al. 2013). The key question is: can India remain competitive through its existing patterns of skill formation?


The role of skills is particularly emphasised in new industrial regions that are developing in order to attract industry, especially multinational firms. Specifically inserted into global production networks, such regions are often associated with skill development and/or overflow. In policy literature, this has been examined through the concept of skill ecosystems (Finegold 1999) that rests on a certain balance of power between firms, the state, and skilling institutions. My research conducted in the manufacturing firms of one such region in North India during 2014-15 reveals there are considerable institutional barriers to the emergence of a skills ecosystem. Trade unions are excluded from skilling decisions and institutions, and labour is not an actor in a context where post-independence compromise meant that the state represents the interests of labour. For unions, their exclusion takes skills out of their bargaining portfolio further weakening their position.


One-sided supply side skilling strategies persist in firms that reinforce the institutional fragmentation within the Indian skilling system as well as the considerable unequal power relations in the labour market. On the one hand, the system of skilling institutions is fragmented between public and private institutions, between centrally certified providers and others that go considerably beyond this and are oriented at the German system. On the other, when it comes to the demand for labour, recruitment decisions always have to be considered against strategies of in-house production vs. outsourcing. Inevitably, long supply chains in the textile and automotive industry draw on the informal economy which, to a large extent, is based on informal skilling practices. Informal workers are /remain weak in the absence of a clear employment contracts, and with limited union coverage and social security.  Because of their weak labour market position, even skilled informal workers cannot bargain for much. These factors combine to entrench disincentives by firms to train or to involve labour in skilling decisions. Only 17% of firms provide training in India. The political economy encourages outsourcing, and thereby further undermines any requirement to engage in skilling.


In conclusion, while the government has put forward an integrated and holistic policy, underpinned by the insight of the skills ecosystems literature, the new policy faces severe challenges in a context of fragmented institutional skilling structure and unequal capital and labour relations both nationally and in the region. With over 93% of workers as informal, power relations are skewed in favour of employers. The imbalances between capital and labour do not provide any collective constraints or offer firms any incentives to develop work organisations that require skilling in a coordinated institutional environment. Firms draw their competitive advantage from recruiting from and outsourcing to the informal economy. This is unsustainable in a globalizing world where other destinations may provide the cost advantage to capital that India currently does. No matter how comprehensive a policy, it is unlikely to succeed unless unequal power relations in the labour market are addressed.


 anitaAnita Hammer is a member of CROWE and CERC at Leicester Business School, De Montfort University, UK. Her research focuses on the Global South and examines the development trajectories of new industrial regions, changing patterns of work and employment and the role of the informal economy


Skills in the age of over-qualification



Caroline Lloyd and CROWE’s Jonathan Payne summarise their major international research project on skills in service work, recently published as a monograph by Oxford University Press



The service economy, in which most people earn their living, has been central to debates around the future of work. Some see the future for advanced economies in terms of a more ‘knowledge-based’ economy, in which more people can look forward to ‘good’ high skilled, high wage jobs, while others point to new forms of Taylorism, the persistence of low skill, low wage work and labour markets that are becoming increasingly polarized. There are, however, widespread concerns that many countries now face challenges in terms of ‘over-qualification’ and ‘skills wastage’. How then can we make better use of skills that workers already have? What can be done to develop ‘more and better jobs’? And what are implications for the way we think about the role and purpose of education? These are vital questions for anyone concerned with social and economic progress, which we seek to address in our new book, Skills in the Age of Over-qualification: Comparing Service Sector Work in Europe (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Our starting point is that an international comparative approach is vital. Too often national policy debates rein in possibilities by assuming that some jobs are simply the way they are and cannot be redesigned or made better. Comparing jobs across countries can help in terms of highlighting alternative possibilities as well as potential constraints. The specific question we ask in the book is whether particular jobs are different across countries or not, focusing primarily on work organisation and skills, while also taking into account broader aspects of job quality. In doing so, we wanted to build upon existing comparative studies of manufacturing jobs and low wage work to explore these questions in relation to service jobs. Specifically, what role do national institutions, sector dynamics and firms play in shaping how skills are formed and the way jobs are designed?

We focus on three occupations (vocational teacher, fitness instructor and café worker) in three countries (the UK, Norway and France). The jobs correspond roughly to professional, intermediate and entry-level positions, and the countries selected are widely viewed as ‘neo-liberal’, ‘coordinated’ and ‘state-regulated’ economies.  In total, 245 in-depth interviews were conducted across the three countries between 2009 and 2012. These took the form of interviews with key industry stakeholders, along with detailed workplace case studies involving interviews with those doing the job and their immediate supervisors and managers.

The evidence indicates that there are differences in the way that jobs can be designed and that choices are available to organisations in the way they organise work. For example, the inspections and intense managerial monitoring, faced by vocational teachers in England and Wales, are not a feature of vocational teachers’ work in France and Norway. For fitness instructors and café workers a more complex pattern emerges. French instructors are required to be more highly qualified by law, have more autonomy in the job, and yet also face high levels of work intensity. In Norway, the job is unregulated in terms of qualification requirements, while the UK uses a voluntary register of exercise professionals which guarantees minimum entry level qualifications.  Café work emerges as a relatively low skill job, requiring little training, in all three countries. And yet again there are differences, with those in Norway for example having more discretion when it comes to making products.

If you are worker in Norway in any of these jobs you are substantially better paid, even when factoring in differences in the cost of living.  Job security is also different. Vocational teachers in France and Norway are typically employed on secure, full-time contracts, while fitness instructors and café assistants are provided with guaranteed hours and more regular shift patterns. All three groups in the UK are more likely to be exposed to insecure work and involuntary part-time or variable hours’ contracts. There are of course limits to how far some jobs, like routine café work for example, can be redesigned or upskilled. Indeed, the persistence of relatively low skill work suggests that countries may need to think more carefully about the role of education in preparing people for personal development and life in general, irrespective of what jobs they end up doing in the labour market. Countries like France and Norway already provide vocational learners with a wider curriculum of general education compared with that on offer to their counterparts in the UK. Finally, even where jobs are difficult to redesign substantially, there is more scope to improve pay and conditions through higher minimum wages, more extensive collective bargaining and higher out-of-work benefits. Possibilities exist, but realising them requires challenging market-based orthodoxy and, more importantly, concerted action and societal pressure for change.

Caroline Lloyd is Professor at the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University and an Associate Fellow at the centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance. Her research focuses on the relationships between product markets, labour markets, work organisation and skills.

Jonathan Payne is Reader in Employment Studies at CROWE-DMU. His research interests and publications encompass the political economy of skill, vocational education and training policy, the changing meaning of ‘skill’, workplace innovation, and international comparative studies of work organisation and job quality.

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