A record year for strikes

The Office of National Statistics has recently published its latest figures around industrial disputes, one of the highlights being the record low number of days lost to strikes, with a similar low for other forms of industrial action.  So, does this trumpet the success of the Trade Union Act 2016?  In short, no.

To those of us involved in industrial relations the latest figures are unlikely to come as much of a surprise. The statistics around strikes have been running at record lows for a number of years now. What IS strange is that, unless they have a record of doing so, many employers remain reluctant to engage constructively with unions.  This often seems to their being wedded to views of the role and operation of unions that weren’t even that accurate in the 1970s, from whence they originate.  Indeed, if you genuinely want to communicate with your staff, the structure and training they can gain through a union presence can make the process significantly easier and more efficient.

So why have I attached a picture Charles de Gaulle airport? Well, mainly because French Air Traffic Control is virtually synonymous with “on strike”, and I was drawn to a recent article examining industrial relations in France and how it relates to the UK. An interesting factor in France is that union membership is only around 8%, meaning that it’s really only union representatives who join.  This phenomenon was examined in Economist magazine back in 2014:

…the real source of French union strength today is the statutory powers they enjoy as joint managers, along with business representatives, of the country’s health and social-security system, and as employee representatives in the workplace. Under French law, elected union delegates represent all employees, union members or not, in firms with over 50 staff on both works councils and separate health-and-safety councils. These must be consulted regularly by bosses on a vast range of detailed managerial decisions. This gives trade unions a daily say in the running of companies across the private sector, which accounts for the real strength of their voice.

So, in effect, people in France don’t join trade unions because they don’t need to, so long as there are enough people willing to act on their behalf.

Returning to the UK, there has been a long-term downward trend in unions taking strikes, one that was well established well before the Trade Union Act 2016 kicked in to make taking industrial action more difficult.  For the last several decades, unions have been adapting to increasingly exacting legal requirements to take industrial action, meaning it is still perplexing why the TUA 2016 was put in place at all (and it remains unclear if it is consistent with human rights legislation which enshrines the right to withdraw labour).  Unions’ main approach has been to become more effective at influencing, better prepared to be persuasive negotiators and of more constructive value to employers that are prepared to engage constructively with them.

I’m currently working with several clients, some of whom face difficulties engaging collectively with their workforce because they lack representative structures, and others that simply want to improve how they interact with their unions to the benefit of everyone in the company.  The common theme is that, if you want to avoid disagreements with your staff, discuss things with them substantively and discuss them early and, ideally, draw out any ideas they can add.  The better people understand the problem, the better they will understand the solution.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

 

Business lessons from the ridge

This time last week I had just completed a traverse of the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye.  Having returned to ‘normality’ and processed some of the reactions I had during the 32 hours we were on the mountains, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on how this relates to my work.

This was an expedition suggested by two of my school friends.  We all grew up on Skye and have walked together on the Cuillin many times since we were children.  However, in spite of having ‘done’ all of the Munros (Scottish Mountains higher than 3000 feet high) in the Cuillin, none of us had traversed the whole ridge, and it was about time that we did!

It was an exceptional experience, and one that affords a range of emotions and times for either concentration or reflection.  In many ways, it’s an opportunity to undertake some sustained mindfulness practice: focusing on the rock when climbing, concentrating on staying upright on a steep slope while ignoring the 2000 foot drop should you miss your step, then marvelling at the view when you reach the top of the mountain are all great levellers.  Life looks different from up there:

1. Perspective – it’s always useful to look at the world from a slightly different angle.  Looking from one direction some of the ascents we made seemed impossible, but when we got to the right starting point there was usually a visible route.  Also, someone else’s perspective of your problem can point to a much simpler solution than you can see yourself.
2. Pushing beyond your comfort zone  – this is often the best way to develop a bigger comfort zone. indeed, by the end of the second day of our traverse we were all significantly more comfortable on a near precipice than we had been starting out.  That reminds me of the journey I’ve taken since starting my business two and a half years ago
3. Trust yourself – sometimes the worst thing you can do is overthink.  It can lead to indecision and unnecessary mistakes.  Other times, the right move wasn’t obvious until we had to make it.  Ultimately, which choice we made wasn’t as important as having the conviction to make it work!
4. Will you achieve it alone? – appreciating when is the right time to ask for help can be as important as any other decision.  We started by deciding we needed an experienced guide (the excellent Dave Fowler from Skye Guides).  Climbing as a team of four meant we were constantly communicating with each other, and failing to do so would compromise the safety of the others, which led to smooth progress and none of us being too precious to ask for help, hints and tips.  Similarly, many of my clients could have solved their problems more easily, and with less input from me, had they asked for help/advice sooner.
5. Achievement is addictive – confronting that feeling that you can’t overcome an obstacle only to regroup and overcome it is a wonderful feeling.  I think all of us reached this point over different challenges, be it a challenging move part way through a climb, toiling due to the heat (a bizarre problem to face climbing in Scotland!) or fatigue due to long term ‘exposure’ (i.e. having precipitous drops on all sides), and had to draw on each other and on our internal resources.  The same happens in life all the time, but it’s too easy to miss the achievement of having solved what, to someone else, may be a relatively simple problem.
6. Modern life can cause unforseen problems – climbing on gabro (the main rock that forms the Cuillin) causes some serious abrasion on your hands. My hands haven’t been so smooth and soft for years, but I haven’t been able to unlock my phone with my fingerprints since I came off the hill!
7. New possibilities – lastly, and importantly, there’s nothing like a once in a lifetime experience to make you want to do it all again!

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Are you dying to go home?

An accident waiting to happen? Every year more people are killed at work than in wars

 

28 April each year is International Workers’ Memorial Day (#IWMD18 #IWMD2018) so, for 2018, it falls on Saturday.

It’s hard to believe that the world of work is still so dangerous.  Many of us underestimate the risk of the things we do each day. How many people in the UK treat driving along the road as the single most dangerous thing they do?  Yet every day 5 people die doing just that.  The same goes for many of the activities we do every day at work – lifting and carrying heavy boxes, walking up and down stairs (especially while talking on your mobile phone), etc.  There’s a long list of things we all do in our working day, often without thinking, that are significantly more dangerous than we ever give them credit.

Some people describe taking precautions to prevent such activities from injuring people as “health & safety gone mad”.   However, that view disrespects the aim to make sure people go home as healthy as they were when they arrived at work.  In spite of those measures, 142 people in the UK still died after going to work in 2014/15.  Even more worrying are the estimates of 13,000 people dying each year because of past exposure to harmful conditions at work, 8,000 people dying of occupation-related cancers and 4,000 from exposure to dust, fumes or chemicals.  And that’s in the UK where we’ve had the Health & Safety at Work Act in place since 1974.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), across the world:
  • Each year, more than two million men and women die as a result of work-related accidents and diseases

  • Workers suffer approximately 270 million accidents each year and fall victim to some 160 million incidents of work-related illnesses

  • Hazardous substances kill 440,000 workers annually – asbestos claims 100,000 lives

  • One worker dies every 15 seconds worldwide. 6,000 workers die every day. More people die whilst at work than those fighting wars.

International Workers’ Memorial Day is a reminder not to be complacent, to avoid seeing common sense anticipation of ‘accidents’, and taking steps to stop them from happening, as an unnecessary imposition.

IMWD also provides an opportunity to reflect, to remember the people in the UK and across the world who have died trying to support their families and possibly to attend one of the many events to mark the Day across the country.

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

 

International Women’s Day – is it needed?

Grand Canyon

Today is International Women’s Day, so I thought it was timely to reflect on perceptions of women’s place in UK society.

 

A recent survey published by Sky News has suggested that a majority of Britons think that feminism has gone far enough.  But has it?  There are clear contradictions within the findings: 70% of people think men are paid more than women for the same work; 65% believe a man will be favoured over an equally qualified woman, yet:

a total of 67% of Britons think feminism has either gone too far (40%) or gone as far it should go (27%)

Perplexingly, women themselves are almost as prone to thinking that enough is enough, with 61% either thinking feminism has gone too far (35%) or has gone far enough (26%).

Whether or not this recent finding is a manifestation of the increasing refrain of “PC gone mad” is a matter of speculation, but it is disappointing that attitudes seem to be so at odds with reality.

That said, some progress is being made – UK companies employing more than 250 people now have less than a month until they have to report their gender pay gaps, which I suspect will leave many scrabbling to reach some kind of balance.  Others may, as has been done for many years, identify that a small or reducing gap means that enough is being done.

Yet, while the gender pay gap is widest for the over 40s, alarmingly the gap for people in their 20s has been increasing, so there really is no room for complacency.

 

Article 23.2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work

The UK signed up for that 80 years ago this coming December, passed the Equal Pay Act in 1970, and pulled other discrimination together in the Equalities Act 2010, yet we still don’t seem able to deliver the non-discriminating, fair society to which those commitments aspire.  Everyone has a value, and everyone should be respected.

The sad thing is that 110 years since its origin in the USA, there is still a need for International Women’s Day because, while the UK is significantly better than many countries, we still have a very, very long way to go until women are truly treated as equals in all aspects of society.

 

Shared Parental Leave, Another Push?

The Government is running a campaign to encourage new parents to share their parental leave.

Shared Parental Leave is an option that’s been available for a couple of years now, but has never really taken off.

A recent article in Personnel Today refers to Government figures indicating that only 2% of families have taken up the option of sharing parental leave.  This primarily seems to be because there’s no provision for the person receiving a share of the leave to get any pay. While some employers, largely legal firms, have agreed to pay parental leave sharers as if they were on maternity leave, they are definitely in the minority.

When I wrote this LinkedIn article back in 2016, I didn’t expect things to improve any time soon – sadly, I haven’t been disabused on that score. However, until shared parental leave is put on an even footing with maternity/adoption leave, I suspect it will only be the minority of families who can afford the drop in income who will have an option to take up the provision.

And I know the image attached to this post should have related to the page from the Government website, but who can resist baby pandas?!

Training in Copenhagen

At the end of November I delivered a training course on Advanced Negotiation Skills. OK, that’s something I’ve done quite frequently over the years, but this course had a slight difference.  This was the first course I’ve delivered as an Associate with CEDR.

It was wonderful working with my co-trainers: Andy Grossman has been delivering conflict resolution training with CEDR since “forever” (about 20 years) and has a wealth of experience; the third of our team was Phil Williams, a retired police officer who now specialises in delivering training around hostage and crisis negotiation.

Djøf delegates getting to grips with collective bargaining, November 2017

The trainees were all members of Danish organisation Djøf (the Danish Association of Lawyers and Economists), a trade union for lawyers, economists and a wide range of other skilled workers across all sectors.  Trade unions are much stronger in Denmark that the UK, with around 67% of workers in membership.  Indeed, the workforce takes a key role in the strategic direction of many businesses. As such, they operate at all levels of the business and often have a greater buy-in to business decisions than is the norm in the UK.

It was fascinating to see how the delegates worked through the course and embraced different aspects of negotiation. The emphasis was clearly on cooperation and people seemed genuinely uncomfortable even having to role-play situations where they had to hold a line and end up in conflict. Their explanation was that this is the Scandinavian way: being reasonable, finding the common ground and working towards a mutually beneficial outcome are second nature.

While Andy and Phil focused on negotiation theory, behaviour and motivation in negotiation, I focused on the collective aspects of negotiating in a workplace.

Like many unionised organisations in the UK, it’s common in Denmark for there to be multiple unions involved with an employer. To simulate that, we ran role-play scenarios where the delegates had to negotiate towards a pay agreement, given a range of restrictions and contradictions within which to find an outcome.

It was wonderful to see the range of approaches they came up with to present and justify their position, whether they were role-playing management or staff, and the enthusiasm with which they set about negotiating.  Suffice to say, it was encouraging that all of the groups were able to achieve their objectives and came away with a greater understanding of the challenges ahead when faced with real collective bargaining situations.

All in all, from a training delivery perspective, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience!

 

Malcolm Currie

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the topics raised in this article, so please leave a comment or, if you’d like to discuss anything more directly, please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

SME Sickness Absence – Prevention or Cure, THAT is the Problem…

Most of my blogs have been about topics in the news that I find interesting, or on which I’d like to provoke a little debate, but this time round I thought I’d take a slightly different approach and reach out to people who, like me, run or work for small/micro businesses for whom sickness absence can be a massive headache.

 

Those of you who know me will be aware that I’m an “egg chaser”, a “spoiler of rugby matches”, or whatever other term you like to use to say that I referee rugby matches, something I took up after recovering from a dislocated knee and a rebuild when the ligaments ruptured.  I also like to cycle, run, climb mountains and do all sorts of other activities that have, over the years, taken a physical toll.

 

Over recent months, my knee had become increasingly painful to the point that, a few weeks ago, I found myself missing a train because I wasn’t able to run/walk fast enough from platform to platform to catch the connection.  This brought home that I needed some sort of medical intervention or I was going to end up not able to work, and therein comes the point of this blog.

Since I went self-employed, I have become painfully (sic!) aware that if I’m not working, I’m not earning.  Worse, because my business is relatively young, I don’t have a track record against which to claim appropriate lost earnings on my insurance (without the said insurance being prohibitively expensive).

 

So, what should I do?

I was already aware of Healthy Working Lives though having worked with an employer who needed their advice in making reasonable adjustments for a disabled employee (another of the services available).  However, in this case, I am more specifically describing the support they can provide for self-employed people or those working in small and medium enterprises, where possible preventing people from going off sick when an early medical intervention might keep them working.

For a small/micro business, the benefit of these approaches is 2-fold:

  1. the individual doesn’t lose income when they needn’t have done;
  2. the business doesn’t lose capacity to deliver for clients/customers.

This runs alongside Fit for Work (operating as Fit for Work Scotland north of the border), a UK-wide initiative aimed at getting people back to work quicker and “reduce the impact that absence has on individuals, employers and the State”, the main difference seeming to be that Fit for Work focuses more on people who are already off work.

 

How does it work?

Well, for me it involved me contacting the Healthy Working Lives advice line (0800 019 2211), answering a few simple questions about my working situation and the nature of the illness, then waiting for contact back.  The result was that I had an appointment with an NHS physiotherapist in less than a week, and, with her guidance, I’ve started a rehabilitation programme that should address the problem and stop it from developing to a stage that prevents me from working.  And if the programme doesn’t work, I’ll be referred to a Consultant who can review anything else that needs to be done.

It’s the second time I’ve needed to use the service since I started my own business, and my experience both times has been very similar, I got the medical support I needed when I needed it and avoided lost time off sick.  I mentioned this at a meeting of my local Chamber of Commerce last year and was amazed that I seemed to be the only SME owner who was aware of it, so I thought I’d share a bit wider that such a service exists.

 

I’d be interested to hear any other hints/tips that anyone out there might have, so please share them if you can.

Good Riddance to Employment Tribunal Fees

Well, it’s been a long time coming, but the Cameron Government’s decision to charge fees for people to raise claims in the Employment Tribunal has finally been shown to be illegal.

Created with Nokia Refocus

In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court has ruled that charging people up to £1200 so they can challenge the legality of their employer’s actions is illegal.

Fees were never introduced in Northern Ireland, and it is notable that there was no drop off in the number of applications to go to their Industrial Tribunal.  Meanwhile, across Great Britain, ET applications plummeted by 70%.  In Scotland, the SNP Government stood for election in 2015 with a pledge that, as soon as they had the power to do so, they would legislate to remove Employment Tribunal fees, justifying this on the premise that someone who has just unfairly lost their employment is unlikely to be able to find the money and will, therefore, be denied access to justice.

Introduced in 2013, fees were initially justified as being to reduce the number of “weak claims”, though a financial incentive later became apparent with the Justice Minister at the time stating

We want people, where they can, to pay a fair contribution for the system they are using, which will encourage them to look for alternatives.

That case was never particularly convincing and the result, inevitably, was that many people with a valid claim were unable to bring it because they couldn’t pay the fee.

Alongside the fees, the Cameron Government also introduced mandatory Early Conciliation.  This is a process whereby the parties, with facilitation by ACAS, can try to reach an out of court settlement and is something applicants have to do before they can complete their ET application.  Although there’s nothing wrong with this in principle, my experience of it wasn’t good.  I have found few employers prepared to negotiate towards a settlement, preferring to gamble on whether or not the applicant could find enough cash for the fee.  Perhaps, with fees now found to be illegal, there will be a greater incentive for all sides to take a more pragmatic, conciliatory approach.

Dave Prentis, the UNISON General Secretary, welcomed the Supreme Court ruling saying:

The government has been acting unlawfully, and has been proved wrong – not just on simple economics, but on constitutional law and basic fairness too.

In this context, the positive role of trade unions shouldn’t be underestimated, and not just because it is through UNISON’s expertise and persistence that this ruling has been achieved, but more locally and practically as well.  A well-trained union rep can defuse and head off the vast majority of cases referred to them, most often through facilitating a pragmatic solution, sometimes through persuading an individual that their case doesn’t stack up.  As an example, this leads to a significant reduction in the number of cases going to grievance, and those that do proceed tend to be much better presented.  This is something that many employers could easily miss.

That principle also filters through to ET applications.  Unions take great care in presenting cases, cases they support are exceptionally unlikely to be regarded by the Tribunal as “malicious, vexatious or frivolous” or “in bad faith”, and a significant proportion are successful.

Of course, most trade unions opted to pay these fees for their members, but many, many people who weren’t in a union must have been denied access to justice by this ill-conceived policy.  While it is likely that those who applied to the ET will have their fees repaid, at this stage it seems likely that those who couldn’t afford the fee at the time will have missed their opportunity, but it remains to be seen if any pragmatism will be shown in that respect.

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the issues raised in this article, so please leave a comment or, if you’d like to discuss anything more directly, please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

 

Taylor Report on Employment – where now?

 We (OK, a few of us) were on tenterhooks waiting for the publication of the Taylor Report into employment practices in the UK, but will it make things clearer or further muddy the waters?

Uber, Deliveroo and Pimlico Plumbers have all been answering legal questions about the legitimacy of a business model that sees them, and other companies, claiming the people work for them are self-employed, so they don’t have to pay Employers’ National Insurance, pension, holidays, sick leave, etc., as their competitors do.  At the outset, Taylor commented that there were areas into which he wasn’t tasked to delve (tax & National Insurance, for example), so it hasn’t, perhaps, been the free and open review that had been called for by many.

There are, however, several aspects that are unlikely to go down well with factions of the Conservative government.  Speaking in May, Taylor said:

“As we encourage people to vote . . . to inform themselves of issues, to volunteer in their community, is it defensible to say that for eight or more hours a day they should accept being ignored, denied information, treated as mere cogs in a machine?”

That could easily be interpreted as a call to reverse moves by the Cameron Government to apply cumulative restrictions to the ability of trade unions to provide that voice.  It could also be that Theresa May’s surprise decision to announce in November:

“…we will shortly publish our plans to reform corporate governance, including … proposals to ensure the voice of employees is heard in the boardroom.” 

might actually come to fruition, though there has been precious little mention of the radical reforms of employment law mentioned in the run-up to the general election.

However, it also suggests that implementation of the Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 2004 (ICER) hasn’t had the impact that it could and should have had.  Certainly, many trade union activists viewed ICER with suspicion, partly because merely informing and consulting can achieve relatively little without scope for negotiation. Similarly, some employers saw it as a way to prevent unions from getting access to their workplace.  However, those opinions have been changing over time, as demonstrated by the TUC’s “Democracy in the Workplace” report from 2014.  There is considerable evidence that employers that actively engage with their staff are more successful than those that don’t:

“Happy and productive people equals growth” (ACAS)

Many were calling for a simplification of the categories, preventing confusion over whether people are employees, workers or self-employed: instead, Taylor seems to be recommending that a further category is introduced, that of “Dependent Contractor”, something more than self-employed, clearly less than a worker, but that is presumably intended to level the playing field.

Quite how the Government will react to the findings is, frankly, anyone’s guess, especially with the level of distraction coming from Brexit, May’s increasingly slender majority, rumoured challenges for the Tory leadership (and, hence, the job of Prime Minister) and Labour apparently surging ahead of the Conservatives for the first time since the General Election, it’ll be a real surprise if they turn to this as a matter of urgency.  But it is the response of Government to these findings that will determine whether or not they make a positive difference for employers and those they employ.

Instead, attention will again be drawn to Uber’s fortunes in the Employment Appeals Tribunal in September.

From where I’m sitting, one answer is in the hands of every employer; improve your working relationship with your staff and, in turn, make the business more productive and more profitable.  That’s an area where I would certainly like to help.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the issues raised in this article, so please leave a comment or, if you’d like to discuss anything more directly, please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Back to the Future as wages are predicted to stay in the past

In spite of political insistence that the economy is recovering, and has been for a good while, this week the BBC’s Economics Editor has predicted that wages are likely to stagnate for a good while longer.

That conclusion isn’t really a surprise, but it will be a disappointment for many given the extent to which pay has been eroded over recent years – this report from 3 years ago pointing out that real-terms pay is stuck in a time loop at 2004.

“But pay rises haven’t been worse since the Napoleonic wars”

The Office of National Statistics’ Annual Survey of Hours & Earnings isn’t complete for 2016, but many of the draft results don’t make happy reading as far as pay growth is concerned:

  • Adjusted for inflation, weekly earnings increased by 1.9% compared with 2015, an increase due to a combination of growth in average earnings and a low inflation (more on inflation below).
  • Weekly earnings rose 2.2% for full-time workers, 6.6% for part-time workers.
  • The gender pay gap for full-time employees was 9.4% (the gap has hardly changed over the last six years).

Indeed, if you look at the cumulative impacts of pay restraint under successive Governments, the 2008 economic crisis and the seemingly never ending austerity that has followed, some public sector workers may only have seen a real terms pay increase in their lifetime if they have managed to get a promotion – and many have only done so because inflation was so low in 2014/15:

“The gross wages of the median Scottish worker are £1170 lower than if wages had kept pace with CPI inflation since 2009.”

…and that’s before you get into the debate about whether CPI, currently 2.6%, is a reasonable measure of the increased cost of living (most trade unions and many commentators prefer to use RPI, currently sitting at 3.5%, as it includes housing costs).

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787