Caroline Flint writes for Unions21 on Fair Work
Work helps create a society in which people can be independent, raise a family and be part of a community. It also ensures that through those that work we can provide for schools, hospitals and other public services essential to the common good. That’s why we are Labour.
I’m the daughter of a lone parent. My mum worked in pubs and shops. At 13, I worked two nights after school in a newsagents. The day I finished my O-levels Mum signed me up to work in a dry cleaning firm for the summer before I started my A levels. Weekend, evening and holiday jobs were part of my work experience up and until my first proper job after university.
I was the first in my family to go to university; my brother and sister left school at 16. We should never treat skills, apprenticeships and experience on the job, as less important than degrees that earn you letters after your name. They are different but vitally important.
My grandma’s family worked in a paper mill. It’s still there today. Her family expected to have the same job for life. That seems a luxury today. Some things have improved for the better since that mill first opened but work is less secure and too many employers exploit employment laws to avoid giving permanence to employees; and poach rather than train. Change isn’t all bad. Trade unions have a vital role in supporting workers to take up new opportunities whilst not being undervalued and undermined.
Working In local government, I introduced my borough’s first workplace nursery; and recruited the first women trainee plumbers and electricians. Even today, I get angry at the outdated attitudes which underpin job gender segregation.
Leading on Labour’s energy policy for the last four years I know that investment in this sector to provide for a lower carbon future will create jobs throughout the UK. But we are facing a massive skills shortage and women are a small minority when it comes to skilled and well paid jobs across this sector. Primary school children today need the right education and encouragement to take up the opportunities of the future – girls and boys.
So what would I do?
First, Labour policy should encourage investment in employees; and reward permanence over temporary employment. There are too many ways for employers to avoid making any commitment to an individual. Our employment laws need revisiting, challenging the minimal hours culture. Flexibility, should not equal permanent insecurity.
Second, fair work only comes with fair representation. How often do temporary staff have their “contract” ended (i.e. the phone stops ringing) only to be robbed of holiday or other pay. As soon as an individual makes a formal complaint, employers should be required to hand them a list of unions, lawyers and other agencies to represent them.
Third, firms work better, more fairly, and have fewer disputes, if they have a workplace partnership with trade unions. I campaigned with the then ISTC, writing to every employee and standing at factory gates, to secure union recognition at a large firm in my constituency. The firm still thrives today and has a great apprenticeship scheme. We should celebrate positive partnerships between unions and employers.
Fourth, I support a Living Wage and any genuine programme to achieve it, although the Tory argument for excluding 21 – 25’s isn’t fair. But we should question the opaque pay policies which create unnecessarily hierarchical structures in which often women and lower paid workers lose out. In my experience, bonus or performance pay structure don’t always produce the desired outcomes or fairness in an organisation, private or public.
Fifth, Government can boost productivity. Two common mistakes about productivity: one is that public sector productivity is only achieved through privatisation; second – improving productivity involves losing workers. A McKinsey report in 2009, argued that public sector reform, doing things differently, made more impact than just putting the same workers into new (private) uniforms.
They also noted that raising the quality of what employees do, through training, skills and investment could be successful in raising productivity.
Government must encourage investment in training (the Chancellor’s apprenticeship levy is borrowed straight from Labour) and investment in R&D (still too low in the UK). In the public sector, government should reward authorities with low absenteeism. Poor management, low staff morale, and high public sector sickness rates are linked. When workers feel valued and supported, their attendance (and therefore, productivity) improves.
Sixth, we need smarter public procurement which can encourage apprenticeships, innovation and support small and medium size businesses embedded in our communities.
Seventh, clear Government direction encourages long term investment, training and job creation, transforming the economic landscape. Take low carbon energy: hundreds of thousands of jobs can be created if Government offers a stable, long term direction. Chop and change has characterised Tory policy, deterring investment as firms wait for clear signals about future intentions.
I believe that trade unions and the Labour Party can rise to the challenge of the 21st Century world of work whilst remaining true to our values.