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.

 

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.

 

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

Time to call time on out of hours e-mail?

The French now have an absolute right NOT to check their e-mail out of hours, but why do people do it in the first place?  Is a law necessary?  And how much of it comes as an expectation of the employer, and how much is self-inflicted?

I suspect there may be a PhD in accurately finding the answer to these questions, but few employment contracts demand that you are available and responding 24 hours a day and for most people the actual expectation is that they work their normal contract hours, plus give a bit of flexibility when they need to get something done.  It’s interesting that France has felt the need to protect people from the pressure (perhaps to protect them from themselves?) by introducing a law that guarantees the right not to check e-mail when you’re not working.

In the days of paper correspondence, people would expect a response to their communication perhaps within the week, but after 5 or 6 days was often the best that could be achieved once everything was balanced into the diary.  That steadily changed as electronic communication came to the fore.

The step changes in expectation, however, came with the rise of the laptop and the BlackBerry.  While the traditional BlackBerry is an endangered species, teetering on the verge of extinction, more and more people are carrying a smart phone on which they can not only send and receive e-mail, but they can browse the internet, log into cloud drives, even edit documents.

I’ve had colleagues in the past who expected instant responses to their e-mails – one reportedly started criticising my lack of response because I hadn’t replied within 2 hours of them e-mailing me.  Whether or not that was true, the fact that someone was prepared to relay it indicates how believable it is in the modern world of work that expectations have become so utterly and completely unreasonable.

This whole situation has become exacerbated by the increasing use of Twitter and other social media by businesses looking to communicate with their customers and clients.  Twitter has brought the expectation of instant responses, or at least within a few minutes, to the extent that some staff are now being tasked with responding to all Tweets within very short timescales, while there has been a growth in suppliers offering social media management services so you can outsource the “instant” responses and focus on more considered answers to legitimate questions.

It is inevitable that this focus on more and more rapid response should spill into people feeling they’re not doing their job properly if they don’t meet the timescales.  That, combined with increasing presenteeism, means people are often tempted into having a quick check of their work e-mail once they get home.  Or just before they go to bed.  Or as soon as they wake up in the morning.  Or while they’re SUPPOSED to be off work ill.  This last one is particularly concerning as the increased stress will undoubtedly delay their recovery, while they are unlikely to get any thanks or recognition from their employer for having done so.  Indeed, a responsible employer should be seeking to stop such behaviour, as has been reported on the parts of Volkswagen, Daimler, Axa and other companies.

To highlight the folly of this lifestyle change, keep an eye out for more information about Work Your Proper Hours Day, an annual event instigated 13 years ago.  Given the amount of unpaid overtime you probably work, including checking your e-mails out of hours, WYPHD falls on the day each year when you (as an average worker) actually start to get paid for the work you do.  And in 2015 people in the UK worked £31.5 billion worth of hours without getting paid a penny.  This year it falls on Friday 24th February.

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

Anti-Bullying Week highlights a growing problem in UK workplaces

Bullying & harassment is a growing problem in UK workplaces, but we shouldn’t accept that as just a fact of life.  

Today is the start of Anti-Bullying week.  Designated by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA), the focus is largely on bullying amongst children, but it also encapsulates issues that arise in the workplace.

What is workplace bullying?

Bully Online define workplace bullying as follows:

Bullying is conduct that cannot be objectively justified by a reasonable code of conduct, and whose likely or actual cumulative effect is to threaten, undermine, constrain, humiliate or harm another person or their property, reputation, self-esteem, self-confidence or ability to perform.

There are loads of other definitions, but they all boil down to very similar messages.

So why bully?

A few of the more commonly reported reasons are:

  • The bully is insecure, possibly because they are being bullied themselves;
  • They feel threatened that someone in their team may be more capable than they are;
  • They’ve been promoted into a management role but have never been properly trained to do it;
  • They are fitting in with the organisational management culture

Experience suggests that many perpetrators are unaware of the longer term emotional impacts of their behaviours.  To someone suffering at the hands of a bully it may seem trite to say so, but challenging the behaviour, and highlighting how it makes you feel as an individual, is often the most effective way to make it stop.  Sadly, the creeping vulnerability that develops when bullying continues unchecked, along with the perceived impossibility of building a case[1], often makes people decide it is easier to either suffer or leave their job.

All too often such behaviour flows from the top, especially from managers who pride themselves on “running a tight ship” or being “robust” in their management – just two of the many terms used to justify behaviour that is actually unacceptable, ones that can flag up the possibility that someone they manage may see their approach as bullying.

Economic Impact

Aside from the human effects, the economic impact is huge.  The performance of those being bullied drops, often they are off sick more frequently, and awareness of what is happening can have a serious impact on wider morale and productivity.  A year ago ACAS published a guide on tackling workplace bullying that referred to 2008 research indicating that workplace bullying costs the UK economy almost £18 billion.  Sadly, their recent evidence is also that bullying is on the rise, something no doubt exacerbated by the continuing economic difficulties facing many companies and organisations.

Let’s hope, for everyone’s sakes, that knowing more about workplace bullying will help to identify it and stop it.

 

 

[1] Of course, there ARE ways of building a case, get in touch if you’d like some advice.

Lidl v GMB – what’s going on?

food-healthy-vegetables-potatoesLast weekend there were news articles about Lidl’s decision to appeal against the ruling that they should recognise GMB union at their Bridgend depot – but why?

The story is reported on the GMB website, which handily also includes Lidl’s statement on the issue.

A significant majority of staff at Lidl’s Bridgend depot indicated that they wanted to be represented by a trade union in negotiations with the company. Lidl’s response was to reject the request for recognition that came from GMB. This was referred to the Central Arbitration Committee, the body that decides the outcome in such situations, who ruled that the union should be recognised. Lidl’s response has been lukewarm, with reports suggesting they are now going to appeal to the Court of Appeal against the CAC decision.

Setting aside the specifics of Lidl and GMB, the question then arises – why are so many employers hostile to unions?

Workplaces that have a union present have significantly better H&S records than those that don’t, they can access all sorts of training for their staff (union reps and members can access training through their union or STUC and TUC education programmes, as well as wider education through UnionLearn projects, etc.) that they would otherwise have to pay for. Being a representative is also a great way for staff to be exposed to responsibility and authority that would never occur in their day job, so there’s a good chance to see what they can do.

Aside from that, it helps meet obligations under the Information & Consultation of Employees Regulations that may otherwise be both problematic and ineffective.

So, with so much to gain, what is it that makes employers so reluctant to engage with trade unions?

Interestingly, around 70% of FTSE 100 companies recognise unions, so it can’t be THAT damaging to the bottom line.

History is a big factor – many, many employers (and workers) still view the union movement as a behemoth from the 1970s. But unions have changed, forced to evolve and adapt initially by legal changes through the 80s and early 90s, latterly by a drive to become more effective at representing their members in the rapidly changing world of employment. Before the last government decided to raise the hurdles for workers to take legal industrial action, it had already become a rare event – 2015 was the second lowest annual total for working days lost through strike action since records began in 1891 (the lowest was 2005).

There are costs – rates of pay in unionised workplaces are higher, and ensuring your workforce is safe and healthy takes investment, but more competitive pay also means they are more likely to attract better candidates when they advertise jobs, and it’s a good thing that people go home after work as healthy as they were when they started, so there are swings to those roundabouts.

I have long been a believer that the objectives of any workforce largely align with those of their employer – success for the company is in everyone’s interests. Hence my work to help and encourage employers to find the most effective way to interact with their employees to improve the company for whom everyone is working. Given the insights they have into the various levels and structures of your business, staff represent a valuable resource from which to better inform your next big decision. That doesn’t change because the staff want to be represented by a union.

However many people you employ, if you’d like help in improving the way you interact with your staff, whether or not there are unions involved, please get in touch – it could be the start of a new future for your company.  If you’d like to know more about the services offered by Strathesk Resolutions, please e-mail contact@strathesk.co.uk or call Malcolm on 07736068787.

To Mediate or Not to Mediate, That is the Question…

DSCN0199Mediation has been around for a long time, and has been used very successfully in many, many situations.  Despite that, I have found many employers quite slow to adopt mediation as an approach, and often reluctant to put it in place early enough to prevent some situations becoming intractable. In some cases, it seems to be an option of last resort rather than a means to head problems off at the pass.

Part of this seems to come from a lack of understanding of what mediation is and does, part of it from seeing it as an additional expense.  In many cases, those that have tried have done so using internal mediators – while that may work in some situations, staff tend to perceive a mediator employed by their company as having a conflict of interests that means they can’t be impartial.  Whether or not that’s true is irrelevant, the perception is the key to the success of the process, so the results have perhaps not been what might have been hoped.  But the relative costs of employing an external mediator will often pale into insignificance compared to the lost productivity that comes from letting a situation persist or deteriorate.

Interestingly, ACAS research published in 2012 showed that mediation is significantly more successful in workplaces where the employer is genuinely committed to the process, less so where they are reluctant to use it – so the results are, to a large extent, self-fulfilling prophecies.  The paradox is that the statistics also show that mediation is second only to direct communication in successfully resolving issues between employees.

One conclusion from the ACAS research was that one poor result can colour an employer’s view of the value of mediation as a whole.  To a large extent, one of the benefits of mediation is that there is little to be lost in trying it, but please do so with a genuine commitment to find mutually acceptable solutions or it is less likely to succeed.

If you’d like to know more about the mediation and dispute resolution services offered by Strathesk Resolutions, please e-mail contact@strathesk.co.uk or call Malcolm on 07736068787.

What Can Strathesk Resolutions Do For You?

Approaching Bass Rock from the south

Strathesk Resolutions specialises in helping businesses to identify, resolve and, ideally, avoid individual or collective problems with their staff through targeted analysis, mediation, training, coaching and mentoring.

We draw on years of experience working collaboratively and constructively to achieve the right outcome to complex industrial relations situations.  We deliver straightforward advice, training and solutions that encourage and develop relationships based on understanding, cooperation and trust.

Our open and honest approach ensures fairness to all sides whilst guaranteeing the needs of both the individual and the organisation are properly considered. Having worked with Trade Unions for years we understand the need for clear and concise communication, whilst influencing and negotiating in an expert manner.

You can expect us to thoroughly explore your problems, ensuring that we properly understand the problem before we start working towards a solution.  We will also keep an open line of communication to ensure that you are fully aware and involved in developing approaches.

Brexit in the workplace – what now?

The long and the short of it is that nothing will change immediately – the impact of European case law remains unchanged, albeit the vast, vast majority of case law originates through the UK’s Employment Tribunal system (primarily at EAT and Court of Appeal).

EU Directives on Employment Law are implemented through enactment into UK Legislation, usually by Regulation, less frequently by primary legislation. In this respect, many of the laws that have originated from the EU have become workplace norms (e.g. protection of fixed-term workers and part-time workers).

There is a risk that more recent and less accepted legislation may be under pressure to be repealed (e.g. Regulations on Agency Workers). There may also be changes over time in relation to the calculation of holiday pay and accrual of annual leave during sickness absence.

No doubt a surprise to many, there are various aspects of Employment Law where the UK provides greater than that stipulated by EU Regulations. This covers holiday rights, protection against discrimination, TUPE (which covers service provision transfer in the UK, unlike elsewhere in Europe), etc.

That said,  companies working throughout Europe and currently depending on UK laws to meet the requirements for a European Works Council may need to review their arrangements.

What about the rights of EU Nationals to work in the UK?  Well, it’s again difficult to say as yet, but special permissions may be needed to work here in future, perhaps with sponsorship, as is the case for non-EU nationals, but in the meantime, EU nationals working here are entitled to stay and continue working. The main protagonists on the Leave side made contradictory statements, so it is difficult to tell what may change, though Theresa May stated a desire to clarify this point quickly, while Nicola Sturgeon has moved to say their position is secure in Scotland.

But what will happen if there are non-UK nationals applying for jobs now? If they are employed, they may be forced to leave in a year or two’s time, but NOT employing them because of that would currently be illegal discrimination.

The UK currently already has a points based system for non-EU nationals which COULD be extended, at least for skilled workers, though Tier 3 (unskilled workers) would need to be reactivated. There hasn’t been a need for non-EU unskilled workers because that gap has been filled from within the EU, but that source is clearly likely to dry up as/when the UK withdraws from the Single Market.  If employers have a need for unskilled workers that they can’t meet from domestic recruitment, this needs to be flagged up with the Government.