The road map to fair work

Sue FernsAs the first phase of Unions 21 Fair Work Commission draws to a close, it is timely to reflect on what the initial findings of the 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS) tell us about the fairness of work in Britain today. WERS is widely acknowledged as a key source of data, having mapped changes in employment relations over three decades. The last WERS survey was published in 2004, in a very different economic and political climate to today’s.


It is no surprise that WERS reports that many workplaces that have survived the recession have taken some form of action directly impacting the wages, hours, organisation of work or job security of their staff. WERS confirms the public sector focus on freezing or cutting pay and jobs, and notes also that public sector employers were more than twice as likely than those in the private sector to reduce expenditure on training, By contrast, cuts in basic hours and compulsory redundancies have been more prevalent in the private sector – at least to date.


The downturn has affected workers at all levels. WERS notes that associate professional and technical staff have been the most likely to experience wage cuts or freezes, and those in managerial occupations most likely to have faced an increase in workload.


Yet, depressingly at a time when unions are most needed, representation in the private sector has continued to decline. The proportion of all workplaces with any union members has fallen to 23% (down from 29% in 2004) and union members constitute a majority of workers in only 3% of all private sector workplaces. Just 6% of private sector workplaces bargain with unions over pay for any of their employees. Interestingly though, WERS did not detect any increase in managerial hostility to unions nor a more strategic use of HR practices.


Despite Government rhetoric on facility time, there is no evidence that reps are spending more time on their union role than previously, but they are now working on a wider variety of issues. Issues relating to discipline and grievance, health and safety and pay continue to be the main consumers of union time, but more attention is now also being devoted to pension and performance issues.


Although half of employees surveyed considered that management were good at seeking their views, it is clear that this positive experience does not extend equally to responding to suggestions or influencing final decisions. Counter-intuitively perhaps, workers in the private sector are most likely to report satisfaction with their level of involvement in decision-making – though this could reflect a range of factors including company size, individual expectations and overt political hostility to the public sector. There is certainly anecdotal evidence that long-established public sector consultation  arrangements are being short-circuited or have been put into the hands of managers who don’t know or choose not to comprehend what genuine consultation involves.


To say the least, this is short-sighted. As WERS also points out, there is an association between involvement in decision-making and commitment to the organisation. Employees who felt committed to their organisation were also more likely to say they carried out tasks beyond those required of them.


The evident failure of the Government’s economic strategy has converted some Ministers to the cause of capital investment. There is an obvious parallel. Investing in good employment relations practices will pay dividends through an engaged workforce prepared to go the extra mile for an employer that values them.


These are the issues that Unions 21 Fair Work Commission seeks to address.


Sue Ferns is Chair of Unions21


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