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

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser