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Employment law not the only route

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The government should resist the temptation to introduce new employment laws and instead concentrate its efforts on a policy of encouraging employers to comply with existing law and pursue a fairness at work agenda.

That’s according to Professor Paul Edwards from the Industrial Relations Research Unit at Warwick Business School, in a paper on justice in the workplace.

He says: “The Labour government’s reforms since 1997 have established major new rights in relation to pay, working hours, trade union recognition and information and consultation.

“But the potential of these new rights to increase justice has not been fully realised because too often the assumption has been that if you legislate for something then it happens automatically.

“That is patently not true. There is now increasing evidence that the amount of control people have over their work is falling, they work harder, are subject to closer monitoring, and are discontented with both pay and job influence.

“At the same time, far too many employers are trapped in low-skill, low-productivity business models. What seems to be happening is that employers either comply minimally, or ignore the law altogether as too difficult. The full potential of these laws both to increase justice and boost productivity thus goes unrealised.

“The future of employment relations in Britain cannot be a matter of new laws or nothing. The new agenda must lie in the middle: what kinds of institutions and arrangements do we need to help run workplaces justly in an era when trade unionism and collective bargaining – especially in the private sector – are historically low, but trust in management is not high either?”

Enforcing employment laws properly is part of the answer, but encouraging employers voluntarily to see the organisational benefits of justice is more important, the paper argues.

It calls for a package of interlocking, bottom-up initiatives designed to build a ‘community of interest’ around good employment standards and the principles of good work. These would not be imposed on employers, but would try to involve them in sharing good practice.

Specific reforms include:

  • More pro-active advice: rather than merely help firms comply with the law, state agencies should emphasise good practice. For example, firms making redundancies are obliged by law to consult employees ‘with a view to reaching agreement’. Yet too often they simply do not know how to give substance to this goal. Good practice on both the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of consultation can be identified. Research shows that firms that consult effectively over redundancies manage the process more efficiently. But if they have no experience of consultation they often need practical guidance.
  • Support for local initiatives: some sectors, especially low-paying ones, often contain firms with the will to improve wages and conditions but they are locked in intense competition. Some local networks exist, but they are weakly established. State financial and moral support for existing networks would help them to establish good practice within the specific circumstances of different sectors. A system of ‘kitemarks’ denoting high employment standards could also be introduced.
  • Sector forums: the existing idea of sector-level employment forums should be put into practice. They would focus on concrete employment issues and models, such as teamwork, skills and training. They are most needed where collective employer organisation is weak. They would aim to encourage employers to talk about ‘what works’ for employment relations.

Professor Edwards says: “It is not that employers lack the will to increase justice. It is more that the means of doing it are not well known, and there are few ways of making it better known.

“If you run a small business, without a human resource department, the thing that is most likely to help you improve the quality of work you offer is not a complex new law with a hundred pages of explanatory guidance, but a meeting with people in much the same boat and your own workers.

“But the kinds of collective institutions in which workplace problems can be worked through are largely absent in Britain. Never has the need for them been more apparent than today. Justice is not about new laws, but making existing laws meaningful in practice.”

The paper says that while promoting justice is important in itself, greater justice in British workplaces is also likely to have economic and organisational benefits. Justice is the key to unleashing the productive potential of management models such as empowerment and high performance work practices which are popular in managerial rhetoric but remain rare in reality.

“These reforms may sound modest,” says Professor Edwards. “But what they are trying to do is to develop the practical, voluntary arrangements that are needed to improve justice, ensure existing employment law is effective, and to help employers – especially hard-to-reach and struggling employers – make the most of the promise of management theory.

“Promoting high quality work is something that in principle is already policy. But in practice it is a largely untried idea. It is time high-level ministerial commitment was given to how to put justice at the centre of the government’s aim of improving the UK’s productivity.”

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