UBI and UBS and U

A conversation held at Block 336 on Wednesday 13 February 2019 during the Block 336 / Finnish Institute in London ART/WORK residency.

Anu Suhonen (AS) is a Helsinki-based visual artist who works mainly with video, photography and installations, awarded the 2019 ART/WORK residency. Her project, Process Accelerator 2.0, presented a factory that chased maximum productivity, satirically reflecting on late capitalism’s push for constant economic growth. Like a snake eating its own tail at an ever-increasing pace, Process Accelerator 2.0 explores technological advancement, mass-production, and short-lifespan goods, considering the effects this vicious circle has on the environment and its limited resources.

Alice Martin (AM) is Head of Work and Pay at the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and leads projects on the future of work and trade unions. Alice is worked on NEF’s shorter working week campaign, and collective bargaining/worker power. She is a regular guest on the NEF Weekly Economics Podcast and is writing a book on trade unions in the 21st century for Polity Press, to be published 2019.

Russell Martin (RM) is director of Artquest, and an artist and writer. Recent projects include The Artists Fund, a prototype trust-based small-scale grants programme selected by artists; Spaced Out, a conference at UAL on the spatial needs and opportunities for artists in London. Russell chaired this conversation.

RM
Thank you all very much for coming to this talk hosted by Artquest.  Artquest is a professional development programme supporting visual artists and undertaking research into their working conditions and motivations.  We’re interested in what the world can learn from how artists work and what artists can learn from how the rest of the world works.

The event is in the context of the end of the Finnish universal basic income (UBI) experiment, although, as we were just talking earlier on, it wasn’t really universal basic income: one of the trial’s specific aims was to see if it encouraged people into work, as it was a replacement for unemployment benefit.  The very initial results were released on 8 February 2019, and found that people in receipt of this UBI reported feeling happier, increasing their wellbeing; that they had better health outcomes, increased trust in their local community and politicians, were more confident about their finances, and that 85% of the trial participants and 75% of the research control group thought that it should be rolled out more widely in Finland.

As I was doing my research around this talk and talking to the speakers, Alice Martin mentioned that she was working on proposals for universal basic services as an alternative model of UBI, where, rather than everyone being given money, instead certain universally required services would be provided: things like healthcare, education, legal advice, shelter, transport, food, but also TV, internet and communications. Basic versions of those services would be provided rather than money to pay for those services.

Having said all this, and mentioned UBI so much, this isn’t just a talk about universal basic income.  It’s one element of a much wider, quite open conversation that we want to have around work, labour, pay and money, some of the themes around the residency and the resulting exhibition.  Some of the things I’m interested in, particularly in the context of artists’ work and artists’ labour, are about the difference between meaningful work versus less fulfilling forms of labour.

Artists often report that they feel their work is quite meaningful, even when it doesn’t earn them any money.  When we’ve done research into asking artists about their working practices, their motivations, how and why they work, they say that the barriers to them being able to work are all tend to be financial: some recent research found that 36% of artists earn less than £1,000 a year from their practice.  They also report a lack of access to appropriate business finance and find it difficult to access markets.  But when we ask them about their motivations and what makes successful artists, they prioritise artistic growth, being part of a creative network, maintaining a long practice, spending lots of time on making work, and none of their motivations are financial.  So, even though artists obviously understand that they need to earn money, since everyone needs to earn money in the society in which we live, that’s not generally thought of as being a particular measure of success for artists generally.  What’s also interesting is that despite all of these negative economic outcomes, 94% of artists in a recent survey said that they would still continue to be artists.  It will be interesting for me to find out if that’s reproduced outside of the creative sector.

One of the reasons artists want to continue is that they feel a high level of agency: they get to set their own agenda, to work on the things that they want to, which compensates them for the low pay and poor working conditions that they often feel.  This is interesting in the context of increasing automation and artificial intelligence potentially removing agency from lots of other kinds of work, and interesting also to see if there’ll be any impact on how people feel about their work as a result.

During this conversation we’ll be looking at some of these ideas, along with many other things that I haven’t even thought about.  Tonight I’m joined by Anu Suhonen, a Helsinki-based Finnish visual artist, and Alice Martin, the Head of Work and Pay at the New Economics Foundation.

So, maybe if we start with you first, Anu: I gave a very brief introduction about your work, could you expand a bit more about this piece and the wider themes and concerns that your work has?

AS
This work is a development of an earlier work called Process Accelerator, and this is version 2.0.  The previous version was a video piece, the one that is exhibited here as well, and one piece of sculpture.  With this exhibition I could make it more according to my original vision, to create a factory or a factory-like facility.  This is why I’ve been using 3D printing machines: it’s very different to show an image or video of production than actually seeing something being produced on the premises where you are watching it.  My work is often concerned with production, consumption and waste, this flawed cycle.

RM
I noticed in your interview in the exhibition the publication, you answered a question about whether universal basic income was a bit idyllic, and you said yes, but that you hoped you would be proved wrong about that.  Why do you think UBI seems a bit idyllic?

AS
Perhaps because it would not be in the agenda of the government we have at the moment in Finland: I think it’s a good idea, but this current government has mostly concentrated on cutting costs, so I don’t think that they are particularly interested if the public is generally happy and healthy.

RM
So you feel it’s more of the current Finnish political agenda around it which seems idyllic rather than UBI itself?

AS
Yes, the idea itself is good, but how it would work at the moment in Finland, I can’t see.

RM
Alice, turning to you now: I mentioned in my introduction about universal basic services (UBS), an idea that you introduced to me – I don’t know an awful lot about UBI and I didn’t know anything about UBS until you talked to me about it a few days ago.  Could you talk a little bit maybe about what it is and the differences or the modelling around it, and how that is the same or different to UBI?

AM
We’ve been talking about universal basic services almost as a campaign tool to think about the UBI debate from a different angle.  There are elements of UBI that we think are exciting, such as bringing people out of a life of precarity and underpinning everyone’s existence with a basic level of economic security to allow them to pursue, for example, art or other types of work.  We agree with the principle that no-one should be left so destitute that they have no alternative but to take on poor-quality work.

However, we’re concerned about the individualistic nature of UBI, the fact that it comes to you individually and you choose how you want to spend it.  It’s also very difficult, if not impossible, to trial, because it’s universal – it either covers everyone or it’s not a true reflection of the working conditions of UBI.  The trials are probably destined to fail, in a way.  But universal basic services would encourage collectivity and the ability to socialise these basic needs. We already do that quite well in this country with the NHS, but we don’t do it so well with housing, for example.

Universal basic services would ensure that basic requirements like shelter, food, education, and health were covered in a way that would not have to be paid for, and therefore allow you to pursue other work and interests without such pressure on earnings.  The reason it’s collective is because it is a form of redistribution along with collective purchasing, so we get what we need as a whole society as opposed to getting an individual payment which you then have to choose how to spend.

Further, one of the risks with UBI is it’s easily taken away – as easily at it could be given by a government, it could be taken away by the next government.  With services, say the NHS or schools, they are social institutions: repealing those sorts of institutions is a much more difficult thing to do, as you would have trade unions who represent service workers and other power bases to prevent this.

RM
UBI could just disappear, yes, but dismantling the education system or the NHS takes longer than just stopping a single policy somewhere, giving opportunities outside of politics to halt the process.

AM
Yes, especially as governments are trying to dismantle some of our services.

RM
Yes, absolutely.

What often strikes me is the similarity between some of the reported arguments against UBI, perhaps also of UBS too, and my experience of being an artist.  When I introduce myself as an artist and mention that I get paid as well, I often encounter resistance to the idea that you can enjoy your work and get paid for it – that enjoyable work somehow shouldn’t be paid, or not paid as much as ‘hard’ work.  There’s a moralistic judgment around UBI – around work in general – particularly in the UK I think – that states that only if you’re working ‘hard’, whatever hard work is, you should be paid, or that the work should be valued.

AS
Yes, I think it’s very common to encounter that idea, that maybe artists shouldn’t be paid since this is your passion, that you’ve chosen this life so then it’s up to you to make it work on no income.  I come across it quite often.

RM
And I think that’s one of the things about UBI as well, the moralistic view of what work is and what it means and that pay should be a reward for doing something that you otherwise wouldn’t want to do.  That, of course, discounts the fact that people need to be productive and feel they have agency, and therefore overwhelmingly people choose to work.

AM
There’s a real similarity between your experience in the arts, that artists don’t tend to be motivated to work for money, and it makes me think about care work and the care economy – something that we work on at the New Economics Foundation quite a lot.

There’s a similarity around intrinsic value: care work is something that we, as a society, value intrinsically, partly because we have to do it but also because there’s something in human nature that means that we want to do it as well.  Most of the care work that we do happens outside of the economy: caring for our children, caring for our parents, caring for our friends and family members.  We probably don’t want to be paid for that kind of care work, and it’s probably right that we’re not paid for it as a job.

Yet there is care work that we do expect to pay for, like childcare, social care and other forms of institutionalised care.  Despite recognising the intrinsic value in it, we offer so little money for those forms of care work.  It seems there is a tension or a causation between recognising the intrinsic value in work, like art or care, and then deciding as a society or politically that we therefore don’t really have to pay much for it – that someone, somewhere, will do this work anyway.  It’s really devastating to see.

I’ve recently had a child and he’s started nursery now.  The people looking after him are paid the minimum wage and are going on to do babysitting jobs after having done eight or nine hours looking after three or four babies at a time.  I’m just absolutely appalled that we allow that to happen.

RM
It comes down to value really, and how the financial value of different kinds of work is expressed through our societal and cultural values: as well as how the people who do this work are valued.  Care work is a very gendered occupation, and like other poorly paid but important work it’s often traditionally carried out by women, so there’s a kind of misogyny in that as well.

So Anu, do you think being an artist is a job?

AS
I can’t really see it as a job because I would get paid a living if it was!

AM
That reminds me of Artists Union England, a trade union for artists.  I don’t know much about it, but presumably it was created to bring a collective voice to artists as workers and perhaps also in recognition that artists don’t relate to their practice as a job.  I wonder if you, Russell, have any experience of it?

RM
Yes, we collaborated on their launch event and keep in touch with them about programmes.  There is a separate Scottish Artists Union that’s been going for much longer.  There hadn’t been a union for artists in England before, and I think it is partly because a lot of people didn’t imagine being an artist as a job until, say, the last ten to fifteen years.  In that time there has been a lot of campaigning around artist fees and other issues to argue that being an artist is a job, a serious and skilled profession that deserves financial reward.  I think that’s a relatively recent phenomenon.

Our research shows that artists often have other jobs that they do on the side to support their practice.  For example, I work at Artquest part-time three days a week to support the other creative activity that I do.  I also live in a housing co-op and I work for that too, which offsets part of my rent and therefore reduces the amount I need to earn.

Many years ago I met an artist in Norway who gets one of the artist stipends that the Norwegian government gives out: he’s quite a well-known artist, but he still has a job in a local TV station because he says if he stayed in his studio all the time, he would just go mad.

Anu, you said I think that there was other work that you do apart from being an artist, and I wonder how you feel about that work and if you feel it adds something useful to your art practice.  Perhaps it’s completely separate?  Or are you a full-time artist now?

AS
I would say that this past year has been the first time in the whole of my artistic career that I have worked full-time as an artist.  In the past, I’ve had a full-time job with the art practice coming as a sort of sidekick.  Most jobs that I’ve had can’t be done part-time, or it wasn’t possible for me.  Art was something I did in free time, or on holidays, weekends.  Then you spread yourself really thin all the time.  So, this past year has been really great: I had a couple of short-term grants that made it possible for me to work full-time as an artist and I had a public art project.  It’s been a new experience for me to work as an artist full-time, and I’ve really enjoyed it.  When I go back to Finland I am going to have to start looking for jobs again.  This was a lovely year though!

AM
You mention that some of the jobs that you were doing didn’t allow you to do them part-time or flexibly.  At the New Economics Foundation we’re looking at the possibility of a shorter working week for everyone, so that you wouldn’t have to specifically look for part-time or flexible jobs because we would all be working three or four days a week.  Our initial report on this issue, published almost a decade ago, called for a 21-hour working week at the same amount as you would be paid for a full-time job.

RM
Some laughter from the audience…

AM
It will happen, it’s coming!  I was saying just before we started the talk that when we first called for the 21-hour working week, we were ridiculed, people said that’s not possible, the economy will crash, people don’t even want to work that little, work is important in society, we’re a hard-working society, we want full employment – all of these various arguments.  But the most prominent argument was that it’s just not possible, that we can’t do it because we can’t afford to.  Now, we’re finding that there’s a lot of appetite from some politicians on the shorter working week, and we’re looking at how it could happen at the level of the economy.  Trade unions are really leading the way on this.

Some of you might have heard that in Germany in 2018 the manufacturers union IG Metall, representing nearly a million people, won a deal to reduce their working week to 28 hours and raise their wages at the same time.  Other countries in Europe already work less than us, with people in France working less hours and having more public holidays.  In Britain we work the longest hours in Europe.

What’s interesting is that there is no gain in working more in terms of productivity, having a strong economy, having happy people: we’re failing on all of those things even as we work more than other countries in Europe.  We have one of the least productive economies and we have a huge mental health crisis.  People are generally stressed and unhappy in this country.  So we’re really pleased that the shorter working week as a serious policy is now back on the agenda, and yes, it brings a lot of benefits to work that has a real intrinsic value and that are difficult to remunerate with pay, like art work.  Maybe we could be artists if we only work 21 hours in our other jobs.

RM
Part of what we’re looking at in this year of our work thematic is retirement.  Many people when they retire think, “Great, now I can be an artist: I’ve got a bit of an income from my pension, I’ve got the time, I can go and do that painting that I’ve always wanted to do.”  This is in contrast with conversations you have with artists about retirement, who almost all say, “I’ll retire when I die”.  Partly because 70% of them didn’t have a pension when there was some research done around 2006, but also because they can’t imagine what they would do if they retired, they don’t see that as an end point.

I’m going to ask one more question and then I’m going to open it up to the audience.  Actually, it was the shorter working week that I was going to talk about.  Other research that we did showed that over half of artists reported spending less than 15 hours a week in their studios: we don’t know why, but it’s possible they have to do that because they can’t afford to be there, with having to pay rent in London as well, and need other jobs to support themselves.  Thinking about that, and about the Norwegian artist I mentioned before who has an artist stipend but still works, Anu, in your experience of being an artist as well and doing other jobs, how much time would you want to work as an artist?

AS
I think I would want to work all the time, but I don’t know.  There are advantages to having outside jobs, as something that connects you to the rest of society more than when in working your studio.  But if I could choose, I would love to spend most of my time in artistic work and then have a little piece of time to do some other kind of job or work.

RM
Thanks Anu and Alice for all of that so far.  At this point, if anyone has questions, comments, or just some thoughts, it would be interesting to hear what you have to say.

AUDIENCE
I have some issues with universal basic income.  For one thing, as Alice said, if the government has given, the government can take away.  I wonder if there’s an issue about whether it can be withheld or sanctioned like Universal Credit currently is.  Who decides what is the level of universal basic income?  Obviously if you’re living in London and you’re trying to get a shelter here it’s going to be a lot more expensive than elsewhere: I’m concerned that it might push some people to the margins.  Just contrast that with employment: obviously there’s issues in the labour market currently, what you can do and where you can work is all being squeezed, but nevertheless you have the right when you’re in work to offer or withdraw your labour.  That gives you a certain amount of agency.  If we go to a system where you’re just given your basic income you may possibly lose a bit of that agency because you can no longer offer or withdraw your labour.

AM
Yes, I think that’s really interesting, you can’t strike against the state.  The forms of collective action you’d need to take in order to ensure that you still get your payment would be very different to the ones that we’re able to take now.  Trade unions here are much weaker than they have been in previous decades but they still represent a quarter of the working population in this country, which is still very significant.  They allow you to collectivise your voice and focus the right to withdraw your labour in pursuit of improved quality of work.

There could be a world where jobs are the things we want to do in our own time.  Monotonous jobs where we feel a lack of interest or agency over how we’re using our time don’t have to continue.  One of the arguments for universal basic income is that it increases the bargaining hand of workers to be able to demand more from their jobs, since it frees them from needing any job, and that’s one of the arguments that I like about it.  If you have a basic level of financial security then you’re not just going to accept any old rubbish job, which is the position that many of us are forced into at the moment, that you have to just take what jobs are available.

RM
My understanding of UBI is that it’s not intended to replace wages: it’s simply to make sure that the minimum required income to survive is covered, so there would still be labour that you would be able to give or withdraw, but it would be less likely to be drudge, since you have your material basis guaranteed.  Another argument for UBI is that it gives people more time to buy stuff, thus propping up the consumer economy as well, which I’m not an advocate of at all, I have to say.  Alice’s universal basic services approach sounds like a really interesting way to circumvent some of the these issues, as well as the labour issues you mention as well.

AM
There has been some interesting research done on how consumer spending habits might change under UBI, and this connects with the exhibition on at Block 336.  I think the evidence shows that if you have more time, you make better decisions about how you spend your money.  So, one of the economic arguments for how we can reduce our working hours without doing damage to the economy overall is because we’d have more time to spend, so we’d prop up economic activity by buying more stuff.  But we’d also be making more conscious decisions over what we’re buying, so the outcomes for the environment, in theory, could be better because we’d not just live for immediate convenience and produce all this waste because of that.

AUDIENCE
Alice, you are advocating for a shorter working week: what is the basis for that?  How many days or hours a week are you proposing?  Have you considered productivity, and how do you equate the earnings of the shorter working week with what we earn today?

AM
They’re really good technical questions.  We still need to work out lot of detail, and the way we’re approaching it is looking sector by sector at how this could be achieved.  We’re not suggesting that the government should suddenly legislate to say that everyone should stop going into work one of the days a week: actually, it might be done gradually, and one good example is the Royal Mail here in the UK.

The Communication Workers Union, which represents postal staff across the country, has just won a deal to reduce the working week by one hour – that doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a gradual step.  The plan is that year-on-year we can campaign to reduce the week by another hour, and to leave it to the postal workers themselves to decide which hour it should be.  Some are choosing to simply take an hour off the end of the week, others are choosing to take 15 minutes off a particular shift, others are choosing to take it as an overtime payment.  The model that is emerging is one of negotiation, and so the role of trade unions is quite central: they represent the people who are actually doing the work, and negotiate directly with employers to implement this change in a way that doesn’t damage productivity.

RM
Just also to add to that before I come to you for the next question, sir.  The Wellcome Trust, a large medical charity and research organisation, have been looking at reducing all of their working hours to four days a week, but still paying everyone the same amount of money, because they recognise that if you have more time off, that can actually improve productivity.  [The plan was later withdrawn.] If people have better work-life balance they are happier, they’re more satisfied, and they work better.  Remember that the concept of ‘the weekend’ being Saturday and Sunday is a construct that was created – I think I’m right in saying – by Henry Ford.  People used to work six days a week until he decided his factory would only operate five days a week: then his employees would have two days off to go on trips in their cars, which they bought from him.

So, I think that there are arguments in either direction about productivity.  Obviously a very key part is that everyone needs to get paid the same amount.

AUDIENCE
I wanted to talk a bit more about part-time working and how it’s related to the status of your job.  I can think of times in my career where some office managers always worked from home on Fridays, for example.  I suspected that really meant they worked from Monday to Thursday and get paid for Friday as well, even if they didn’t do anything at home; whereas if you happened to be a Tesco shelf packer they’ll be telling you your hours.  The Tesco situation oppresses people, whereas the high-status office job is a form of corruption: where you put your coat on the back of the chair, disappear for the day, and still get paid.

AM
I think that’s a really good point.  What you’ve basically pointed to is the inequality between people who can choose to take more time off, and the fact that most people actually can’t.  Our work in this area is very much about ensuring incomes would remain the same.  That’s why it has to be a more gradual process to ensure that people who work shifts, for example, still get to benefit from this kind of proposal.  It isn’t just having a Friday off for everyone.

There’s something else that came to my mind, when Russell mentioned the fact that we didn’t used to have the weekend until it was invented.  There’s a general sense that the amount of time we spend in work is a bit like the weather: that we don’t have control over it.  But we do – it’s a societal and political choice that’s developed over time.  We didn’t used to have an eight-hour working day either, that was something that was won by trade unions.  Before that, you would have to work as many hours as you could physically stay awake for.  So, there’s definitely scope to reduce and reshape our working patterns more.  And finally, just on Russell’s point about the Wellcome Trust: they’ve actually not reduced the week yet, they’ve just committed to looking at it.

RM
I see, okay.

AM
But it’s huge, it’s still huge news that they have even gone that far, because they have 800 employees.

RM
Do you know where that’s come from, where that conversation about working hours has come from?

AM
I think basically it’s around the wellbeing issue that you mentioned.  There’s evidence that shows that if you work less, and enjoy your time more at work, you’ll do better work.  That’s not just in terms of productivity, as you also have better staff retention.  Having to train new staff is actually a huge cost to businesses, so if you retain people for a number of years it makes business sense.  Studies of shorter working week trials have shown that it makes people take far fewer sick days while making them generally more present and enthusiastic to work.  The Wellcome Trust presumably want to be on the front-foot with something that’s increasingly being seen as a positive move for a progressive employer.  I think we’ll see more organisations following their lead, and there’s already a number of small businesses across the country who have implemented it.

AUDIENCE
I just wanted to ask Alice a question, just for clarity.  I just wanted to know more about the organisation you work for: is it a campaign organisation, is it educational?  Who pays for the people in your organisation?

AM
Good question.  We’re an independent think-tank: our legal status is as a charity.  We don’t work with any one political party.  We’re transparent about our income: we have the top rating in terms of openness about income from Transparency International.  On the whole, we’re funded by individual grants either of lots of small amounts of money from individual supporters or via charitable grants that we apply for.  For example, we’re not funded by the Welcome Trust, but they might support a programme that we apply for funds for.

I think we’re considered a bit of an outlier organisation in the world of think-tanks.  Generally, the things that we consider and research aren’t perceived as being policy-ready or politically palatable at the time, but give it a few years and they tend to trickle down to the mainstream.  The Labour Party Manifesto is largely made up of ideas that we’ve been talking about for a while, there’s a shift happening at the moment.

AUDIENCE
UBI might become essential if the next wave of technological industrialisation starts to happen, with intellectual labour being taken over by machine learning, automation, and AI.  Many people are potentially going to lose their jobs: not even just jobs that are repetitive, the mundane labour jobs.  There might be less jobs anyway, so a shorter working week could just happen naturally.  Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe it will leave more time for being creative, but it’s difficult to see at the moment how that will all pan out.

RM
I agree, it feels like there’s a change coming whether we like it or not, and it would make more sense to plan for it rather than just let it happen.  And as you say, it’s not just the mundane work that’s being replaced: entry level legal jobs are being replaced by AI, quite a lot of jobs in medicine, cancer screening is being replaced by AI.  Where AI and automation can’t replace people is how you clean behind the taps.  Humans can do manual dexterity that that robots can’t.  Robots are not even very good at walking yet.  I’ve heard it argued that artists will be the last ones to be automated, anyone doing creative labour, and yet there are AIs that compose music which people report having an emotional response to until they find out it’s been done by a computer, then they feel a bit cheated by it.

AUDIENCE
Many people also argue we’ll need many more programmers, but they’re designing algorithms to design new algorithms.  It could eventually turn into just a few workers at the very top that are controlling everything.

RM
For me it’s partly about the difference between a job and work: we’ve talked about whether being an artist a job or not.  Whether it is or not, it’s definitely a lot of work.  I remember when I was in art school and my first sculpture tutor told us that artists don’t get holidays, you’re always working in some way.

AUDIENCE
I was wondering if you think hard work is thought of as immoral.  It’s all well and good saying that we should be asking more from our jobs, but it could cast judgement on work that is inherently hard, unpleasant and not rewarding.  Mines closing in the north of England defined the decade I was born, with whole communities taking pride in hard graft.  Is there a moral imperative in getting rid of all of that kind of work?  You can’t imagine anyone working in a mine today, and that’s quite a quick social change in only thirty or forty years to move from a position where closing those mines is a scandal, to a position where working in those mines is completely unacceptable.

AM
Forms of exploitation through work are ever changing and always there, yes.  There are still 700 people working in the UK in coal mines, although I doubt those jobs involve such a manual element, but it is still an industry that exists in a very small way in this country.  But there’s still vast potential to create very bad jobs that don’t necessarily involve manual work.   It can be a horrible job whether it’s graft or not, if you’re being monitored, if you have no freedom to go to the toilet when you need to – if you’re living and working under so much surveillance for example.

A sobering note too, on the question of techno-utopias replacing jobs.  At the moment in this country, we pay such poor wages that a lot of industries that could automate aren’t, because it’s cheaper to just pay people than it is to buy machines to do the same work.  I think we’re quite a way off that, but there is an industrial transformation happening and we should be preparing for it.

RM
Politicians are very fond of saying that they’re looking after ‘hardworking families’ without defining what hard work is.  In the examples of around mining, or working in an Amazon warehouse: it’s physically challenging work, and in that sense that it’s hard work, but maybe it’s hard work because it’s quite humiliating as well – not being able to go to the toilet when you need to is a humiliating position to be in.  It’s as much to do with the agency that workers have, an agency that is increasingly being pushed up the work food-chain

AUDIENCE
People now expect to have agency in their jobs.  That’s something that’s happened in a very short amount of time, to tell people that they should have agency.  It’s a lot of pressure on workers: it’s very easy to be dissatisfied with your menial job and not find it rewarding if you’re being told to look for agency in work.

RM
There’s also an international element: 700 people work in mining here, but that’s not the same everywhere: there’s still a lot of mining going on, it’s just not British people doing it in the UK.

AUDIENCE
Anu, as an artist, are you comforted with the shorter worker week?  Listening to you talk about your experience of working as an artist full-time for one year, what do you think of UBI?

AS
If there was full UBI, I think for artists, and everyone else, could realise your life in a very different way.  For an artist it would make it simpler, easier to organise your time.  If you have to spend most of your time thinking how to pay the rent and get money, then of course you have less time for your creative practice.  The model that we tested in Finland was very partial and it didn’t change that much.

RM
Yes, it was just replacing unemployment benefit.

AS
Yes.

AUDIENCE
I have a follow-on comment from a previous question, about UBI becoming essential in the face of automation and AI.  I thought the same, but I hadn’t thought about universal basic services in the way you described Alice.  Could say a bit more about what that might look like?

AM
In the context of a transition, either to a more automated world or a less carbon-intensive world, there will necessarily be changes to working conditions, to the types of job that exist, and these needs will be different in different regions.  Services can underpin that transition in a way that won’t leave communities destitute.  It would mean taking an ‘NHS approach’ to other areas of our lives where we have indisputable need: in education for example, to tackle the inequalities we have at the moment.  The Musicians Union have spoken about the precarity of their members, many of whom are music teachers in schools, who are being put on temporary contracts.  This damages your relationship with the children, it’s becoming superficial, but this isn’t happening in the sciences or maths.  These are the kinds of inequalities that are going to get worse if we don’t plan for them.  A universal basic services approach would see services like education properly funded to prevent this.

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About the author

Russell Martin

Russell is a graduate of The Glasgow School of Art who has lived in London since 1998. Initially working in gallery education, his self-initiated projects include workshops, residencies, peer mentoring, artist-led galleries, radio programmes, and a series of interdisciplinary arts social events. Russell is director of Artquest, a member of the board at Block 336 and City and Guilds of London Art School, and an advisor for PRAKSIS, an artist residency in Oslo.

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Alice Martin
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