Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Archive for October 2009

France Telecom establishes €1bn staff help fund

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This morning’s Financial Times is reporting that France Telecom, under intense pressure from workers following a series of work-related suicides amongst its managerial and professional staff, is in the process of establishing a €1bn fund to provide some support to workers towards the end of their careers.

Negotiations on the programme with the company’s trade unions are apparently not yet concluded (and the union websites are as yet silent), but the purpose of the fund seems to be to allow workers aged 57  – the group most affected by the company’s restructuring and the currently-suspended system of compulsory job moves every three years – to move to part-time working while maintaining pay. It needs to be stated that not all those who have committed suicide in the past period (or who have sought to do so) are, however, in this age group.

The size of the fund is not fixed at €1bn but, according to the report, the company has acknowledged that a sum of that magnitude is its ‘working hypothesis’ and would depend on the final precise terms of the scheme and the eventual take-up.

The news was broken as the item appeared in a briefing on the company’s third quarter results – the analyst materials for which do refer to as yet incomplete negotiations on a new social contract, part of which encompasses talks on psychological risks and the programme of part-time work for seniors (see slide 17 of slide pack).

A full conclusion needs to wait for the outcome of the negotiations with the unions but, for now, it does demonstrate what workers acting together can achieve in the context of social dialogue.

Hat-tip: Martin Silman, Executive Director Industry Analyst Relations at AT&T.


Written by Calvin

30/10/2009 at 4:00 pm

Equal Pay Day 2009

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… Is today. Or, perhaps, it’s Unequal Pay Day since 30 October is when women stop getting paid this year.

The Fawcett Society, which works for gender equality in the UK, has launched the initiative on the basis that, with an equal pay gap of 17.1% at the full-time level, this is the point in the year when women are effectively working for their employers for free compared to their male counterparts who will get paid right the way through until 31 December. The equivalent of 62 working days without pay.

You can find out more about the Fawcett Society campaign here, while Connect reps can access Connect’s equal pay pages – including the submission on equal pay audits about which I blogged a couple of days agohere. A group of leading campaigners, including the TUC’s Brendan Barber, has also written to The Guardian seeking a number of initiatives designed to deliver justice in the workplace for women.

With the EHRC consultation on equal pay audits, there is the opportunity to make real strides for equal pay in 2010 and beyond – should it be bold enough to recommend that the government take decisive action via mandatory pay audits. It is clear to us that the voluntary approach will not deliver the real action required to ensure that the equal pay gap is closed and, in this context, the government’s reluctance to take that step is hard to understand. The forthcoming Equalities Bill offers the opportunity to address this and we would urge the government to use it to make a start on extending the pay calendar for women by introducing equal pay audits.

Written by Calvin

30/10/2009 at 12:05 pm

Pension scheme membership – ONS figures

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The Office of National Statistics has today produced figures on the level of membership of occupational pension schemes, using figures drawn from the 2008 annual survey of occupational pension schemes.

The headline figures are that, within the purview of the survey, there are 27.7m members of occupational pension schemes in the UK – though this includes both active and deferred members (in respect of the latter of which there may be some double counting in the figures since an individual may be a deferred member of one scheme and an active member of another) and current pensioners. Of this total, there are some 9m private and public sector employees currently contributing to pension schemes, while there are 8.8m current pensioners and 9.9m people with future entitlements.

(By the way, pension schemes are not so-called Ponzi schemes; i.e. they do not depend on a continual stream of incoming members (and contributions) to pay the pensions of existing pensioners – although ‘mature’ schemes, where the scheme is either closed to new members or where the membership profile is much more towards pensioners than existing members, often find it necessary to adopt much more cautious investment policies, resulting in lower returns).

The survey also reminds us that defined benefit schemes in the private sector have higher contribution rates than do defined contribution schemes: the average total contribution rate (both member and employer) for open defined benefit schemes in 2008 was 19.7 per cent, compared with an average of 9.0 per cent for open defined contribution schemes. Furthermore, the figures also seem to show that the current woes of pension schemes are very much reflective of the times, and that closing schemes is not a money saving measure: closed DB schemes had an average employer contribution rate of 18.1%, compared to 14.6% in open schemes.

There are of course some holes in the figures – the ONS itself points out that the figures exclude those in personal pensions, including group personal pensions (GPPs) and stakeholder pensions. Nigel Stanley over at the TUC has today done a very good job in highlighting this shortcoming in the figures (as well as engaging in some useful agenda setting in terms of how some of the nuances of the figures might otherwise have been reported).

Nigel’s point on the real scandal in the figures being the huge number of private sector workers who are without an occupational pension at all picked up on the central theme of the TUC’s earlier Press Release on the ONS survey. In it, Brendan Barber, General Secretary, went on to comment that the figures pinpointed the correctness of the government’s reforms to the pensions system starting in 2012 in requiring employers to contribute to schemes where employees themselves want it.

This is a different issue to the staged introduction of the employer contribution to personal accounts announced by the DWP and, while it remains disappointing that the regime will take so long to introduce, as I blogged about below, it is good to see something of a fightback against the Tories’ announcement that they would review the reforms. Tim Jones, chief executive of the Personal Accounts Delivery Authority, also came out fairly strongly recently in some unattributed remarks (or otherwise a private interview) picked up by Citywire in which he insisted that the reforms were on track.

Something needs to be done about the large number of people not saving for their retirement: the system of personal accounts is a good start in tackling that culture and there are indeed a lot of myths that need to be busted about personal accounts. If only that lengthy staged introduction could be cut-back…

Written by Calvin

29/10/2009 at 6:14 pm

Mandelson reveals BIS thinking on illegal file sharing

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Just two days after the French ‘three strikes’ legislation on illegal file sharing passed into law (blogged about below), BIS Secretary Lord Mandelson has revealed that the UK approach will also encompass the possibility of persistent offenders having their internet connections cut off (BIS press release here; video of Mandelson here).

The formal response to the BIS consultation on illegal file sharing, which closed one month ago, is not expected until the publication of the long-awaited Digital Economy Bill, but Mandelson confirmed in his speech, at the C&binet creative industries conference, that proposals on file sharing will be included in it. It’s also fairly clear what they will look like. A careful reading of what is being proposed reveals an essential conservatism in that the cutting of persistent offenders’ net access will be very much a last resort, reserved for the most serial of infringers and accompanied by a clear appeals process, and that the predominant focus will be on reducing the extent of illegal file sharing via warning notifications and targeted legal action by rights holders. When net access plays an increasingly significant part in modern life, and given that net connections are frequently shared between a number of different people, that is clearly the correct approach.

Mandelson is right that ‘we cannot sit back and do nothing’, in the face of music industry evidence that only one in twenty tracks downloaded is done legally (a fact in apparent need of a citation), and (regardless of that) in the face of a growing expectation of a ‘right’ to free music. Mandelson is also right to target the pseudo-commercial aspect of illegal file sharing, confirming that in-family music sharing is acceptable. An approach based on education, enforcement and new business models is clearly the correct one.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that this is an initiative that I very much welcome, overall – but it seems to me that the government and the industry needs to engage in some of the soft stuff as well. By this, I mean a careful campaign focusing on the serious side of what illegal file sharing entails, from the moral perspective of the rights of the copyholder, with a view to changing behaviour over time. A campaign that focuses on the costs to the industry is likely to be far less effective as we are instinctively less sympathetic to the costs to faceless big business. (Or perhaps that’s just me.) And that’s not just because of the film industry’s rather embarrassing ‘knock off Nigel‘ campaign. So I’m particularly interested in Mandelson’s reference to education playing an important role in tackling the issue, and a delay in legislating for the disconnection aspects until April 2011, to give time for the soft stuff to work, is a sensible one.

At the same time, we do need further information on just how illegal downloaders will be spotted, targeted and approached. Such methods need to be open and transparent, and they do need specifically to preclude DPI-based methods of reading our net traffic.

I’d also question whether it is right to rope ISPs into sharing the costs, at any level, of enforcing the interests of rights holders. Numerous analogies could be made here to question the efficacy of holding channel providers partly responsible for the legality of what passes through those channels – I won’t do that but it seems to me intrinsically the wrong approach. It is the responsibility of rights holders to enforce their rights – and, particularly where the co-operation of IPS will be required in this process, not least because – ultimately – they could be losing revenues as a result of enforcement activity, asking the latter to share even a part of the costs of doing so could be counter-productive. At the same time, Talk Talk’s stance seems, to the extent reported by the BBC, to be rather irresponsible (although the content of the site itself seems to be based on good, honest campaigning).

So, two-and-a-half-cheers for Mandelson on this issue, I think.

Written by Calvin

28/10/2009 at 4:48 pm

UK slips in gender gap league

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A report published today by the World Economic Forum (link is to press release) shows the UK slipping to 15th place in a table of 134 countries on the issue of gender equality. This continues a process of gentle decline which has seen the UK slip from 9th in 2006 to 11th, 13th and now 15th.

The Forum’s gender gap index assesses how well countries are dividing resources and opportunities between men and women, regardless of the overall levels of these resources and opportunities, and combines individual assessments within four overall sub-indices: economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; health and survival; and political empowerment.

The UK ranks top (or, rather, equal top) in terms of the indices on educational attainment, but 22nd on political empowerment, 35th on economic participation and opportunity, and 72nd on health and survival (largely owing to a rather low-looking ‘healthy life expectancy’ of 72 for women and 69 for men).

Income falls within the economic  participation and opportunity sub-index, and here the UK ranks 20th with women’s estimated earned income, in terms of purchasing power parity, standing at 70% of that of men. This is actually the UK’s best result within this index but survey figures on wage equality for similar work show a figure of just 64%  – and the UK ranks 78th, its lowest level within this whole sub-index (just for comparison, Uzbekistan ranked top on this measure).

Nordic countries, headed by Iceland, filled the first four places – the same four countries as in 2008 (albeit in a different order). New Zealand filled fifth place, as it did in 2008, while South Africa jumped from 22nd to 6th, as a result predominantly of improvements in women’s participation in the labour force and in the representation of women both in the South African parliament and the government.

The individual component figures in the survey can always be challenged, but the survey acts as a useful check on the UK’s general progress towards gender equality – or, in this case, its lack thereof. The result on pay equality is particularly poor and chimes with recent research in the UK which shows that the gender pay gap remains, in the words of the Women and Work Commission, ‘stubbornly persistent‘ despite a reducing trend. At the same time, however, it does provide an opportunity to address the factors which might provide for the step-change required for women to break through the gap which remains.

Perhaps Proposals for promoting greater transparency in the private sector, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission consultation on improving gender equality in the workplace which closes tomorrow, might provide some way forward. As far as Connect is concerned, and as we argued in our submission to the consultation, mandatory pay audits are the way forward since they lead to structured and agreed action being taken towards a closing of the gap, with subsequent publication being the trigger both for accountability and for action.

Written by Calvin

27/10/2009 at 5:47 pm

France approves HADOPI 2 law on illegal downloading

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One month after its parliament passed the new law, the controversial French legislation cutting the connections of illegal downloaders was approved last Thursday [registration required; limited viewing time] by the French Constitutional Court.

The new law sets up an agency – HADOPI – that will send out an e-mail warning to people found to be illegally downloading copyright content. Registration of a second offence within six months will be followed by a written report and a third could see a judge order a one-year access suspension or a fine. The members of the agency are expected to be appointed next month and the first warnings could be issued from the start of 2010.

The law’s proponents, including French President Nicholas Sarkozy, have supported the law based on the need to provide an environment in which content owners can flourish in spite of the ease with which content can be stored, reproduced and traded online. Doubtlessly there has been some form of international competition here too as countries have been to some extent racing each other to produce the first laws and thus to define themselves as the country with the ‘best’ protections for content owners. The UK, for instance, is also consulting on how instances of illegal downloading should be dealt with, while the European Commission also launched last week a consultation on the digital single market and protecting creative content online.

Furthermore, the European Parliament has dropped its amendment to the EU telecoms package which would have protected the rights of internet users to a court hearing before being cut off: an interesting development given that Parliament’s insistence on the law earlier this year stopped the package being passed prior to the summer’s EU elections, and then on the specific grounds of the first draft of the French HADOPI.

The French law has been controversial for the measures it takes in response: cutting internet access for up to one year – where this is the conclusion of a judge after due legal process – is a harsh punishment given the pervasiveness of the net and its political and social importance, and some organisations, e.g. Reporters sans Frontières, have as a result criticised the law as constituting a ‘major threat to free expression‘. Reaction has also been produced on the extent to which internet service providers themselves might contribute to the costs of policing illegal downloading, with associations of content owners, both in the UK and in France, arguing that they should while ISPs themselves have fought against such an idea, again on both sides of the Channel – and with some justification: policing copyright infringements should be the activity of copyright holders.

Reporters sans Frontières are right to be concerned about the methods of identifying persistent downloaders but freedom of expression concerns are rather harder to sustain in this context. That controlling persistent downloading is rapidly taking on the characteristics of whac a mole doesn’t preclude the need to do something about it – or that we should simply accept copyright theft as an inevitable part of internet life.

Written by Calvin

26/10/2009 at 6:16 pm

Tories to deregulate health and safety?

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This week’s Risks newsletter, edited for the TUC by Rory O’Neill of Hazards magazine, contains an item on ‘Regulation in the post-bureaucratic age’, a recently published Tory policy document on the regulation of health and safety.

Essentially, what is being offered employers is a system of self-regulation under which ‘well run’ employers with certain checks in place, including the employment of professionally qualified experts in health and safety, could refuse to allow HSE inspectors on to their premises except in cases of emergency. External health and safety audits would also be arranged independently of government inspectors.

This forms part of a series of Tory initiatives on regulation – if not quite a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ then a ‘taming of the regulators’ – which has resonance for its likely approaches to other areas of regulation.

The problems with this particular initiative are legion. The document itself draws analogies with the system of controls and audits of corporate financial information which, as Risks correctly points out, brought us Enron and other financial scandals. These scandals taught us – or ought to have done – that information which is intended to be made public is not necessarily reliable and internal appointed experts are not always – whistle blowers apart – able to exercise the appropriate degree of independence which provides the reliable safeguards being sought. Hindsight is a powerful weapon of learning for other analogous circumstances – we ought to use it.

Secondly, where is the evidence that health and safety inspectors cause onerous burdens to business? We all know the triggers that health and safety provides readers of a certain newspaper but, in reality, the health and safety inspectorate is woefully under-resourced as it is (see facts and figures from the Third Report of the Work and Pensions Committee in April 2008) and instances of HSE inspectors landing on premises to carry out spot checks are rare. Perhaps this really is policy making for – and by – newspaper readers…

Thirdly, we ought not – but clearly we do – need to be reminded that, even under the current regime, accidents happen at work. Nine people died in the devastating ICL Plastics gas explosion – commonly referred to as Stockline – in 2004, while 33 others were injured. The independent audit concluded that the explosion was an ‘avoidable disaster’ based on ‘serious weaknesses’ not only in the way the companies ran the plant but also, crucially, in the health and safety legislation. Not only did the company management ‘lack knowledge and understanding’ of the underground piping which was the cause of the explosion, the HSE itself was guilty of a ‘stiffly bureaucratic’ response (quotes from here). This provides no reason to seek further cuts in the bureaucracy: an unbending of the bureaucracy is likely to require rather more, not rather fewer, inspectors – yet this is surely likely to be the outcome of proposals such as these. Rightly, trade unions including Prospect, which represents HSE staff and with which Connect is recommending merger in a ballot of our membership now taking place, have strongly criticised them.

In the area of health and safety at work, ‘light touch’ regulation does not work – and workers should not need to pay with their lives for that lesson to be continually re-learned.

Written by Calvin

26/10/2009 at 12:48 pm