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Unions 21
| Blog post

Bargaining For The Future

By Matthew Taylor, RSA | 4 min

Two things occurred to me soon after I was appointed by the Prime Minister to chair the Review of Modern Employment. First, the questions arising from modern employment forms such as ‘gig’ work are not separable from longer standing and wider issues about people’s experience of work, and particularly the lives of those at the lower end of the labour market. There is, for example, no fundamental difference between the relationship between Uber drivers and the global corporation hiring them and the employment form that has existed for decades in large parts of the mini cab sector.

Second, for the Review to have any chance of making an impact beyond some tidying up of labour regulation, we need as a nation to make a principled decision. I hope the top line of the Review’s final report is that ‘all work should be fair and decent with scope for development and fulfilment’ (to give its recommendations extra impetus I am exploring developing an RSA campaign around this goal ahead of the Review’s launch).

Standing back and taking this wider view of the future of work has rekindled my enthusiasm for employee engagement. Greater worker voice and workplace dialogue has many virtues. While we need, and the Review will recommend, regulatory changes, the history of both employment and labour tax rules is characterised by perverse outcomes with lawyers and accountants finding ways of circumventing the spirit of the law to the benefit of their clients. If employers and workers work with each other they are likely to develop better and more flexible solutions than can be imposed nationally. This is one reason why evidence suggests a broad correlation between employee engagement and productivity. It also helps explain why the UK suffers both from low levels of employee engagement by international comparison and poor productivity.

A growing body of research shows engagement is also associated with higher levels of employee health and well-being. This is hardly surprising given evidence from psychology of the importance of both control and meaning in human satisfaction and resilience.

If we want all work to be good work – and no one should underestimate the importance of setting this as a national goal – then engagement is a vital tool. As I have gone round the country for the Review most people I have met agree. The difficulty comes when the conversation turns to how we achieve progress.

Broadly, I am an enthusiast for the Information and Consultation of Employees regulations introduced by the Labour Government in 2005. Work in this country would be better if the threshold for the introduction of ICE into firms had not been set so high that it has only been enacted in one in five companies. But when I make this argument I find equal levels of scepticism from two opposing sides. On the one hand, employers and their organisations say that formal arrangements are unnecessary and onerous. Unsurprisingly, they prefer models of ‘engagement’ that are predominantly about the firm communicating to its workers on the management’s terms. On the other hand, trade unions can be scornful of information and consultation given that it falls short of what they see as the real need – which is for workers to join trade unions and demand collective bargaining.

I have great sympathy for the view that both our society and economy would be stronger if the UK had more members of progressive trade unions. But we can’t simply wish away very low rates of unionisation in large parts of the economy. The view that employee engagement is a poor alternative to union organisation and recognition rests on a false dichotomy. Instead, as Unite has shown in several instances, employee engagement techniques can provide a ‘shallow end’ of collective action encouraging workers to see the benefits of having a voice and being represented and thus opening them to the possibility of taking the next step into union membership.

In the face of employer suspicion and union ambivalence the ICE regulations have been described as ‘an idea with out a constituency’. It won’t be easy persuading the Review team and the Government to provide that constituency and to make structured engagement the norm in British workplaces rather than the exception. I could do with all the support Unions 21 can provide.

This piece also appears in Agenda, the quarterly magazine of Unions21

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