The current dispute at Gate Gourmet and BA is reminiscent of the true industrial disputes of the 1970’s. Apparently the employer is trying to reduce the influence of the unions and use an industrial dispute as a rationale to reduce headcount, while at the same time the union is allegedly trying to subvert the interests of the company and defend the indefensible.
Added to this we have illegal secondary action among the ground staff at BA. All we need now is beer and sandwiches at No 10 and it will be a true throwback to the 1970’s.
I wouldn’t claim to have any special insight on this dispute – the only interest I have is as a long-suffering BA shareholder, but it is interesting to see things from the outside and just wonder what’s going on. As an aside, how did the term ‘industrial action’ ever come into being? To me, it seems like a complete misnomer when ‘action’ is the least likely thing to happen!
There is an interesting academic challenge in this dispute as well as the more practical issues. How many of us are aware of the legislation that relates to unofficial action? I used to feel comfortable with my knowledge of employee relations, but I have to confess that when it comes to the finer points of TULRA (Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992) I had to hit the reference books!
What really interests me in this dispute is the impact it is having on BA. Clearly there are very real family and cultural ties between the Gate Gourmet staff and many of the ground staff at Heathrow. Indeed, apparently some of the existing Gate Gourmet staff previously worked for BA prior to the work being outsourced. But why was the unofficial walkout such a surprise? To my mind, one of the key tasks of both line and HR staff is to keep an ear to the ground and to be aware of the likelihood of action taking place. Perhaps this happened – perhaps not!
What of the union (T&GWU) in this situation? They have had the twin challenge of a potentially nasty dispute at Gate Gourmet where they are being threatened with the closure of the Company or accepting that some of their members will not be reinstated. At the same time a group of members have taken unofficial action that the Union cannot countenance. I suspect that this is merely the precursor to a much bigger battle between BA and the T&GWU when the new BA COE, Willie Walsh, takes over.
Some commentators have questioned the business acumen of outsourcing a key activity such as catering, thereby losing control over what goes on. Yet in fairness to BA, in many ways that risk remains if the work is kept in-house, there is still the risk of industrial action or some other supply difficulty.
What I think the dispute should remind us of as HR people is the role we have to play in risk assessment when it comes to outsourcing. In many situations outsourcing is driven by bottom line impact, and while that is doubtless important, how often do we see HR professionals being involved in the business case and assessing the business risk?
I think that as a function we have become much more knowledgeable and proficient at handling the process issues – and these are far from easy – yet how much are we called upon to assess the people risks inherit in an outsourcing activity?
Every business operation carries risk and outsourcing is one of them. That isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be done, what should always happen though is that HR contributes to a full assessment of the risks involved and endeavour to look a long way into the future. Not necessarily easy, but vital for the long-term effectiveness of the activity.
What experience do readers have of assessing risk within outsourcing? How many organisations assess the industrial relations climate when taking outsourcing decisions?
Quentin Colborn is an HR Consultant who helps businesses address employment relations issues and internal communications. He can be contacted at [email protected] or on 01376 571360
Colborn’s Corner: series articles
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- Compensation culture or fair treatment?
- Mind your Ps and Qs
- Assessment Centres – are they worth it?
- What’s in a name?
- Disciplinary dilemmas divulged
- Employee engagement – realism or wishful thinking?
- Internal communication – who told you about that?
- Is there a place for ethics in HR?
- Employment Law in 2005 – a case of over-regulation?
- Pensions – whose crisis is it?
- The 2005 Election – what does it mean for HR?