It's time to introduce workplace citizenship to Britain's employers. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How to fix Britain’s broken workplaces

A new inquiry into Britain's work problems presents a vision of workplace citizenship.

There’s something seriously wrong with the world of work, and not just in the places you would expect. We know that the UK is near the bottom of the EU low pay league and that those on low pay make up a fifth of the labour force (the same as in 1994, despite the introduction of the minimum wage). And, we know we are world leaders in zero-hours contracting and outsourcing.  But, the problems at work today are no longer confined to precarious employment. As the Smith Institute’s inquiry into Making Work Better shows, the majority of Britain’s workplaces are now broken and under-performing. 

The inquiry’s 100-page report by Ed Sweeney, the former chair of Acas, documents a litany of employee concerns: falling real wages, insecurity, mistrust, skills under-utilisation and low levels of engagement. Workers in all types of jobs say they feel undervalued and over worked. They are also angry about excessive top pay and the way they are managed. Many employers are communicating, caring and investing in their staff. But, the gap between the rest and the best is widening.

Problems at work may be a blind spot for the government, but it’s undermining our productivity (which already lags well behind our competitors) and costing the taxpayer billions in terms of in-work benefits. The fact we have so many low paid, low skilled jobs in low value business is also holding back the recovery. 

With so many people feeling short-changed at work there are potentially huge dividends for a party that champions not just more work, but ‘good work’. Promising a fairer and more prosperous society with greater opportunity for the many can’t be achieved with a government that ignores the benefits of social partnership and employee voice and fails to tackle worsening wage inequality and widespread mistreatment at work. International research quoted in the Sweeney report, for example, busts the myth that deregulated labour markets with fewer employment rights and a power imbalance tilted firmly in the employers favour leads to higher productivity and happier workers.

Moreover, there’s a compelling business case for making work better. Highly motived, empowered and engaged workers make for more successful organisations. Fear and anxiety at work are hardly the hallmarks of modern businesses. What is self-evident to the vast majority of people in work is that a top down “bosses know best”, “us and them” view of the world belongs to yesteryear.  It not only stifles both productivity and innovation, but creates mistrust between employee and employer.

A serious problem in many of our workplaces is not so much the lack of skills, but the poor way managers use the latent talent in their workforce. Innovation is not just about spreadsheets or tests in the science lab. Surprising as it may sound to some, employees often know the best way to undertake a task and may have insights into what is not functioning properly. Instead of using the skills and knowledge, workers in the long tail of poor performing companies are left feeling disengaged and disillusioned.

In many instances workers also feel insecure. Indeed, the race to the bottom on rights and voice is not just about the acute problems in troubled workplaces. According to a recent Smith Institute and TUC poll, half the workforce is fearful of loss of job status while a similar proportion feel anxious or worried about work. This is hardly a basis for building trust or encouraging employees to go the extra mile, let alone the foundations for a healthy one.  Studies by Professor Michael Marmot and others repeatedly show the harmful effects insecurity (and low pay) has on the health of the nation. Making those social costs more transparent and identifying and benchmarking the good employers can help, as can support for better management and HR training.

For some, the societal costs associated with insecurity and wages are just downsides to the unstoppable forces of globalisation and technological change. However, such ‘natural forces’ are not experienced in the same way in other countries. And, most low paid jobs are not subject to the pressures of international competition. Indeed, a telling conclusion from the Making Work Better report is that these inter-related problems at work (poor productivity, insecurity and inequality) are a consequence of a financial business model designed to pursue the low road on wages, skills, and employee involvement.  The fact that the government’s employment policies encourage this ‘race to the bottom’ is no coincidence, as its failed ‘shares for rights’ scheme illustrates.

There is an alternative which challenges some of the prevailing assumptions and sets out an alternative narrative on the labour market. It’s based on the concept that work gives us meaning; that productive work is achieved by colleagues working together; that success requires workers at all levels having a say over their work; and fair rewards and security require balanced power relationships at work.

Such a vision of workplace citizenship isn't a fantasy, and there is much that government can do to ensure that employees do not surrender their rights as citizens at the point they cross their employer’s threshold. Government, for example, can do more to spread good practice and help create a level playing field so the best employers are not undercut on the basis on lower pay and poorer conditions. As the report suggest, government can become a Living Wage employer and use its power of procurement to lift people out of poverty pay. It can  also insist that companies disclose their pay ratios and support collective bargaining; clamp down on the abuse of zero hours contracts and bad agency work; reform the employment tribunal system to make it affordable and fit for purpose; improve the enforcement regimes for the minimum wage and equal opportunities; ensure that a two tier workforce doesn’t emerge when services are contracted out; extend childcare and improve eldercare; and simplify and amend the existing Information and Consultation Regulations to give employees a stronger collective voice.

Improving the world of work will of course rely on decisions and circumstances of individual employers and employees (and trade unions). But government can take a lead and advocate a culture of cooperation and consultation. The prize is not just a better deal for employees and more productive organisations, but a better deal for government.

Paul Hunter is head of research at the Smith Institute

Getty
Show Hide image

Five of Scotland’s most exciting general election battles

Will unionists hook the big Salmond in Gordon? And can the Tories overrun the Scottish Borders? Everything's up for grabs. 

In 2015, the Scottish National Party won Scotland in a landslide. With the next election expected in 2020, politics for the next five years looked homogenous, managerial and predictable. 

But then came Brexit, talk of a second independence referendum, and an early election. Now everything's at play. Depending on your perspective, this is a proxy indyref2, or a chance to condemn the Brexit government, or the opporunity to turn Scotland blue. One thing is sure - local contests will not just be about collecting the bins on time, but about the great constitutional questions of the day. With a giant splash of egotism. 

Here is my pick of the constituency battles to watch:

1. Who’s the biggest unionist of them all?

Constituency: East Renfrewshire
Battle to watch: Blair McDougall (Labour) vs Paul Masterton (Tory)

If anything symbolised the #Indyreffightback, it was the toppling of Jim Murphy, the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire in 2015. Murphy had slogged away for the No campaign during the 2014 referendum, braving egg throwers and cybernat centurions to make the case for the UK in 100 towns across Scotland. Being ousted by the Scottish National Party’s Kirsten Oswald was the biggest metaphorical egg of them all. 

Still, Murphy only lost by 3,718 votes. The self-styled defenders of the union, the Scottish Tories, have spied an opportunity, and made East Renfrewshire a target seat. Paul Masterton, a local activist, hopes to follow in the footsteps of Jackson Carlaw, who snapped up the same area for the Tories in the Scottish parliamentary elections last year. 

But who’s that appearing on the horizon? Blair McDougall, the former Better Together chief, is waving Labour’s banner. And no one can accuse him of flip flopping on the independence question. 

Since quashing a second independence referendum is the priority for pro-union voters of East Renfrewshire choose, they are likely to vote tactically. So which candidate can persuade them  he’s the winner?

2. The best shade of yellow

Constituency: East Dunbartonshire
Battle: Jo Swinson (Lib Dem) vs John Nicolson (Labour)

When Jo Swinson first won her home constituency in 2005, she was just 25, and by her early thirties, she was pacing the inner sanctums of the Coalition government. But in 2015, East Dunbartonshire voters decided to give her an early retirement and opted for the former broadcaster, the SNP’s John Nicolson, instead by 2,167 votes. 

In England, the Lib Dem surge has been fuelled by an emotional Europeanism. Swinson, though, can sing “Ode to Joy” as many times as she wants – it won’t change the fact that Nicolson is also against Brexit.
So instead, the contest is likely to come down to two factors. One is the characters involved. Nicolson has used his media clout to raise his profile – but has also been accused of “bullying” STV into dropping its political editor Stephen Daisley (Nicolson denies the claims)

The other is the independence referendum. East Dunbartonshire voted 61.2 per cent to stay in the UK in 2014. If voters feel the same way, and vote tactically this time, Nicolson may wish to resurrect his TV career. 

3. Revenge of the Tories

Constituency: Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk
Battle: John Lamont (Tory) vs Calum Kerr (SNP)

And the winner is… anyone who can reel off this constituency name without twisting their tongue. Let’s call it BRK, or Project Blue. 

BRK, a rural constituency in the Scottish borders, was once a comfortable home for the Liberal Democrat Michael Moore. He was driven out in 2015 by the SNP’s Calum Kerr. Indeed, such was the political turmoil that Moore slumped to third place. Kerr’s biggest rival was the conservative John Lamont. 

Two years later, the electoral horns are sounding, and Lamont is so confident of his victory that he is standing down as an MSP. There were just 328 votes between him and Kerr last time round. So who will be the new ruler of BRK?

4. Labour’s last stand

Constituency: Edinburgh South
Battle: Ian Murray (Labour) vs everyone else

When Ian Murray first won Edinburgh South for Labour in 2010, he might have been in his early thirties, but he was surrounded by Labour heavyweights like Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy. Five years later, after a catastrophic election night, he was the only Labour MP left in Scotland. 

Murray’s survival is down partly to his seat – a leafy, academic constituency that epitomises Edinburgh’s pro-union, pro-Remain vote – and his no-nonsense opinion on both these issues (he’s no fan of Jeremy Corbyn either). A similarly-minded Labour candidate, Daniel Johnson, won the overlapping Scottish parliamentary constituency in 2016.

Now, though, Murray is fighting a defensive battle on two fronts. The SNP came second in 2015, and will likely field a candidate again. But those with longer memories know that Edinburgh South was once a Tory realm. Stephanie Smith, who is also standing for local elections, will be trying to take a bite out of Murray’s pro-union vote. 

Still, Murray has a good chance of outlasting the siege. As one Labour activist put it: “I think I’ll be spending the next six weeks camping out in Edinburgh South.” 

5. The big fish in the pond

Constituency: Gordon
Battle: Alex Salmond (SNP) vs Colin Clark (Tory)

Freed from the chains of high office, Alex Salmond is increasingly in touch with his inner charismatic bully. When not trying to wind up Anna Soubry, he is talking up a second independence referendum at inconvenient moments and baiting the Brexiteers. This is the big fish the pro-union movement would love to catch. 

But can they do it? Salmond won the seat in 2015 from the Liberal Democrats with a majority of 8,687 votes. Taking on this whopper is Colin Clark, a humble Tory councillor, and he knows what he’s up against.  He called for every unionist to back him, adding: “I have been in training since 2015 and I am fit and ready to win this seat in June.”

To get a sense of how much the Scottish referendum has changed politics, consider the fact that Labour activists are ludicrously excited by this prospect. But however slippery he may be, the SNP goliath in person can win over even devout unionists.  I’m not betting on a hooked Salmond any time soon. 

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496