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'Provocation Paper' Argues Against More Employment Legislation

January 31 2007 - A recent "provocation" paper from the Industrial Relations Research Unit at Warwick Business School argues against more legislation to extend justice in employment but for new initiatives to promote fairness at work and compliance with legal rights already in force.

Professor Paul Edwards, report author said:

"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?"

The paper argues that effective enforcement of employment legislation is less important than encouraging employers to see the organizational benefits of promoting a just workplace. It calls for a package of interconnected initiatives to create a "community of interest" committed to good employment standards and practice.

Recommendations in the report include:

  • "More pro-active advice" - State agencies should emphasise good practice not just compliance with legislation, for example in relation to effective consultation over redundancies.
  • "Support for local initiatives" State financial and moral support for existing local networks of firms would facilitate good practice, for example in relation to pay and conditions, within the particular circumstances of different sectors. The report suggests introduction of a 'kitemark' system to acknowledge high employment standards.
  • "Sector forums" Sector-level employment forums (reached as part of the Warwick Agreement) should be implemented to focus on specific employment issues, such as teamwork, skills and training. The report suggests that such forums are particularly indicated in situations in which collective employer organisation is weak.

Professor Edwards commented:

"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 argues that while promoting workplace justice is an end in itself, it also has economic and organizational benefits and can translate management models such as empowerment and high performance work practices from rhetoric into reality.

Professor Edwards added:

"These reforms may sound modest. 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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