So was the Taylor Review listening?
"The Review believes that for work to be fair and decent, workers must have a voice."
A good start then – an acknowledgement that workers’ voice is integral to decent work. And the report goes on to argue that there is a need to address ‘poor management practices’ to give more workers more influence over their working lives.
However, as in other areas of the Review, the proposals put forward aren’t up to the job in hand. Alongside the warm words and some welcome proposals, there are critical gaps.
Missing – proposals to boost collective bargaining
Trade unionism is based on the principle that coming together gives workers more power than acting alone. This collaboration goes some way to addressing what is otherwise a fundamental imbalance of power within the employment relationship. This is true within any workplace – but especially true for a workforce that is vulnerable. Insecure workers are by definition easier to lay-off– it may be as easy as just not sending that text message with the next shift.
For insecure workers, it is doubly important that they have the protection of acting together and acting with and through a trade union, which can provide support and legal advice. Collective bargaining provides a way to address low pay, insecure contracts and the myriad of abusive employment practices that have become all too common in many of the fastest growing sectors in the UK today (think of retail, hotels, restaurants and pubs, construction, further education, care…)
However, the Review is silent on boosting collective bargaining or making it easier for unions to organise. There’s nothing on giving unions access to workplaces to help workers address problems at work; nothing on establishing sectoral bodies where unions and employers could establish minimum standards in sectors where exploitation is rife.
Warm words – the role of unions
There are warm words about the role of unions – but nothing to help us do our job. Nothing to make it easier for unions to organise and support workers who are both most in need of a union and, at the same time, the most difficult for unions to reach.
This is a critical gap that goes to the very heart of the Review.
Missed opportunity – workers on boards
The Review is neutral on workers on boards, saying:
We do not have a strong view on whether workers should be directly represented on company boards, as they are in some other countries, or whether other solutions would work better in a British context.
This is another missed opportunity. Including workers on company boards would give workers a voice in strategic decision-making and help companies to recognise the gains to morale and productivity that stem from using a responsible model of employment.
Welcome proposals – extending consultation rights and company reporting on employment
More positively, the Review does recommend making it easier for workers to trigger rights to information and consultation at work. At present, if ten per cent of employees request it, employers must provide information and consult employees on key business decisions. These rights are not very commonly used. Few people know about them and organising ten per cent of the workforce is a high bar, unless there is a union in the workplace.
The Review recommends extending these right to workers (currently, they apply only to employees) and reducing the threshold to two per cent of the workforce, which is welcome. Extending the rights to workers is a common sense response to the changing profile of the workforce and may give unions an additional means of helping some of the UK’s most vulnerable workers to get organised. Changes will need to be accompanied by a huge publicity drive. Even with a lower trigger threshold, if no one knows about them, the rights are not likely to be used.
Also welcome is the Review’s proposal that companies should be required to report on their employment model, including their use of agency workers – another long-standing TUC proposal. This will help unions and others to highlight the reputational and operational risks that companies using insecure employment practices face.
Conclusion – overall, the Review is disappointing on workers’ voice
The Review shows a recognition of the importance of workers’ voice, but a lack of understanding of what is needed to make it work at the sharp end of the labour market. There are some welcome, but limited, proposals; unions will do their best to make the most of them, but alone they will not be enough to boost workers’ voice where it is needed most.