Freedom, Power & Zero-hours: could a Citizen’s Income improve our businesses and labour market?


Believe it or not, the current business and employment landscape is not like it was 50 years ago. Fewer people work for big industrial corporations. There are now more small businesses and more self-employment. The main entry point for many of those starting out in particular industries is through internships or apprenticeships.

Those that still work for large corporations often work on zero-hours contracts. These contracts can be used to allow an employee to work flexibly, or can act as a way for a company to only employ a worker at a time which suits the company, with the worker having to be available perpetually to wait for the call. Essentially zero-hours contracts push the company’s risk onto the employee; like self-employment, unpaid internships and setting up a small business, zero-hours contracts are a risky form of employment which is often only undertaken by those who have enough cash to offset the risk, or are incredibly desperate.

While some may not consider the above situation to be a problem – the natural results of a functioning market – others find the idea of people taking work out of desperation wrong. If we accept that sitting (and getting ever poorer) at home waiting for a company to call is less than desirable, there are several ways we can think about overcoming this conundrum. First, we could look to ban it all. Zero-hours contracts, internships, all to go. But zero-hours contracts can be very useful for those who prefer flexible work. Equally, internships can be a great stepping stone onto the career ladder, but only for those who have the money to sustain themselves while undertaking them.

What if, therefore, rather than banning all of these employment patterns we instead decide to give those people who either feel they cannot undertake them or take them only because they are desperate (and live an impoverished existence) what they need: the means to sustain themselves. If everyone was provided with a Citizen’s Income – a regular, unconditional cash sum of money supplied to every UK citizen which is large enough for them to live on – then applying for an internship, signing a zero-hours contract or starting a business no longer feels like such a risky venture after all.

Indeed, because you would have enough money to live on already, with a Citizen’s Income you should never feel the need to take a job just because you need to sustain yourself or your family. This does not mean that people would just give up on the career ladder altogether – if you want a nice house, a nice car and all the trappings of such a lifestyle you will still need to advance your career as is the case now. But theoretically you would no longer have to feel stuck in a job which you hate: if you’re an accountant but have always dreamed of being a chef, it would currently be very difficult to drop your current position to pursue the latter; with a Citizen’s Income you could sustain yourself while learning the necessary skills and without worrying that your family might fall into poverty if things don’t work out. A satisfying solution.

In addition, if the Citizen’s Income were introduced we could see the flourishing of the voluntary sector. With an unconditional income in their pockets more people may be more disposed to work part-time, using the remainder of their time to contribute back to their community through volunteering with charities or other schemes. With the Citizen’s Income people would be able to follow their heart, choosing the charities which best suits their beliefs and preoccupations. The Citizen’s Income could even be the means of rekindling Prime Minister David Cameron’s abandoned “Big Society” idea. Fancy that.

A Citizen’s Income would also allow people to more easily carry out the work which often gets forgotten about when we concentrate on spreadsheets of employment figures: caring for a child or an elderly, disabled or ill relative. While the government has woken up to this area in recent years, caring for a relative can be a full-time job and a Citizen’s Income would help enshrine it as such.

Finally, the greater financial security which the Citizen’s Income would give people will mean start-ups and small businesses will flourish, potentially boosting innovation as a result. There may be many people in this country now who have the next best technological or scientific innovation but feel they can’t share it with the world because they’re in a job they feel they can’t get out of. A Citizen’s Income could change all that.

But would people actually use this new-found freedom, security and flexibility that the Citizen’s Income grants them to benefit themselves, their community and the economy, or would they sit around at home all day and do nothing because they have free money they don’t have to earn?

Remember: it is the current benefits system which incentivises unemployment. At the moment, benefits are taken away from claimants as soon as they find employment, and at a high deduction rate too. This prevents those who are unemployed from taking up employment, particularly part-time employment, for fear of losing their benefits (they are often not paid enough to cover the loss). This wouldn’t be a problem with a Citizen’s Income as it would never be withdrawn, encouraging an unemployed person to find a job.

While it’s easy to assume that a Citizen’s Income would encourage laziness, in practice this too appears not to be the case. A Citizen’s Income trial in Nambia increased the employment rate from 44% to 55% in the relatively undeveloped country. Meanwhile, a survey by researchers Claude Gamel, Didier Balsan and Josiane Vero in France found that 55% of those surveyed would continue doing the same job and to the same lengths if they were given a Citizen’s Income. 1.8% of those surveyed said they would change jobs, 7.2% replied that they would pursue training via a contract, and 4% would choose to resume education. Meanwhile, 16.9% said they would work less, and only 0.4% said they would stop working altogether. Such figures are relatively encouraging: in a future where many jobs are done by machines, it may be worthwhile for people to work less in order to maintain a healthy employment rate; the lack of people who would actually decide not to work altogether is also positive. Almost seems like people actually want to work.

The Citizen’s Income can also be a tool for social solidarity. Most obviously, because they are not in a financially desperate situation workers can refuse work, or bargain with their employers to reach a better deal.

The important thing is that a Citizen’s Income would give people more of a choice about where to take their life. No more being trapped in an unemployment labyrinth; no more taking a job out of desperation; and no more sitting at home twiddling your thumbs. Now that sounds like a good idea.

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Jon Holiday

Jon commentates on the ways culture and politics interact.

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