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Union policy research in the 21st century

Archive for the ‘Working lives’ Category

Future pensions: the view from the NAPF mountain

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A state pension worth around 1/3rd of average earnings to provide a robust floor of benefits, supplemented by a workplace pension built around auto-enrolment and mandatory contributions, the whole supervised by a new regulatory settlement based on a standing Retirement Savings Commission analogous to the existing Low Pay Commission.

That’s the vision of the National Association of Pension Funds, the industry body representing scheme sponsors, in Fit For the Future, a new report on pensions published yesterday (press release; full report). Praised by the TUC as offering ‘serious and constructive proposals for the future of pensions‘ there’s a lot in the report to commend, as well as some items for debate.

It’s hard to disagree with the NAPF’s view of the pensions landscape: workplace saving has fallen dramatically both in terms of numbers and in terms of the value to ordinary workers of the pensions generated there. Rightly, the NAPF doesn’t spend too long analysing how this situation has come to pass, but is oriented more towards what can be done to stop the decline and get the principle of workplace saving back on track.

There are many factors which help to account for why this situation has come to pass, as these pages have already argued; though it would be perhaps rather churlish in this context to remind that decisions to close schemes appear to stem largely from the unsympathetic and ruthless cost-cutting actions of scheme sponsors themselves. The Connect Sector of Prospect has some experience of negotiating alternatives where employers are looking to move away from defined benefit provision; outside this experience, that employers have tended not to stop anywhere in the middle of the pensions continuum but have leapt straight from defined benefit to defined contribution is less of a reflection of the lack of risk-sharing alternatives, as the NAPF directly suggests, than of the realities of employment relations in the 1990s: employers have done so because they can; and because the will to do something more creative (but evidently more costly) has not, except in a few, admirable cases, been found.

Despite the acknowledgement that ‘workplace pensions remain central to providing people with an adequate
retirement income’ and that workplace provision is ‘at the heart of good pension provision’, the central role in the NAPF’s vision is occupied not by workplace saving, but by a beefed-up state pension scheme – perhaps rather surprisingly, for an organisation representing (workplace-based) scheme sponsors, but perhaps a reflection that what has been lost will be hard to replace other than by slow incremental steps, starting from the 2012 reforms. Even within the context of workplace savings, the primary place in the NAPF programme is taken by a suggestion for a maximum of twenty ‘super trusts’ whose role would be to offer members of small schemes the low charges facilitated by the benefits of scale – a worthwhile, and supportable, idea alongside the NEST but whose contribution to revitalising workplace provision might well turn out to be less than dynamic.

Other suggestions from within the workplace savings context include offering ‘core’, unindexed pensions to scheme members only (it seems to me that indexation is an under-appreciated pensions benefit; while a focus on the scheme member only might be supported when retirement is far away, but deeply regretted once into retirement since ensuring loved ones are provided after your own death becomes much more important the closer you get to that point); improved mandatory contributions to the NEST (definitely supportable); better advice to accounting standards bodies on accounting for pensions (likewise); and a new statutory objective for the Pensions Regulator to promote good pensions provision (clearly a good idea).

So, there are some worthwhile things to explore in this document and the NAPF is to be congratulated for putting it out. It would be a shame if its publication at this point in the electoral cycle led to its many good ideas being lost to public debate. Nevertheless, in the meantime, I’m reminded once again that quality pensions expanded and became more beneficial at a time of labour strength; their contraction at a time of labour weakness simply proves that advances in benefits have to be won by collective action and are not given away by employers for free.

BA and the online newspaper ethos

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One of the more interesting features of the newspaper industry is its long-standing use as a bulletin board: from quirky, ‘disgusted of Tonbridge Wells’-type letters to letters to The Thunderer and to other newspaper editors setting the world to rights or getting something on record, whether from the establishment, interested individuals and opinion formers. Letters usually had the resonance of importance and their publication in print frequently added weight to the arguments expressed, not least to the usual readerships of the newspapers concerned, whose leanings and approaches are well-known. Given this, their role in changing views might have been pretty limited – preaching to the converted is never going to change the world – but at least they had a role in commencing debate at some level. And you could open your favourite newspaper knowing that it wasn’t going to turn you a nasty shade of apopletic red.

Which is why I turned to yesterday’s letter to the Guardian by 95 leading academics criticising the behaviour of British Airways in its dispute with Unite with some interest. At the last count, there were 495 comments on the story and, at the (early) point at which I stopped reading them, a large percentage of people were using the piece to hang anti-Unite, frequently anti-trade union views, regardless of the debate which the academics had sought to start about BA’s actions.

Clearly, not so many typical readers of The Guardian among them. The question is, I guess, why – why would you hang around on a newspaper site, to the leanings of which you are not instinctively sympathetic, just to have a go? Well, because you can, probably: Web 2.0, where your opinions are not only desired but an integral part of the experience, has some things to answer for. Dialling The Times today re-directs you to a page (no doubt in the short-term) inviting you not just to read the thing but to ‘listen to it, watch it, shape it, be part of it‘, as part of its charging-based re-vamp, but the outcome in practice is frequently the facilitation of opportunities for wind-up merchants and trolls of all types.

I really don’t want to open the online version of The Guardian and be assaulted by a range of closed-minded views straight from the pages of the Daily Mail. If I want that, I’ll open the Mail. I’m as happy to engage in debate as the person stood next to me – and I’m not frightened of views opposed to mine. But what I do want is the sensible and rational, not the mindless. And I want it focused, not random. And I want debate, not diatribes. OK, no-one’s forcing me to read this stuff (and indeed I didn’t get very far with it, thus – at some level – wasting the time of all those whose views I didn’t trouble myself with, natch) but Web 2.0 does have the power to extend debate and that power is dissipated when debates are dominated by those whose purpose is not to engage but to flame. And that’s evidently a lost opportunity.

The answer – more active moderation, perhaps. That might be asking a lot for popular newspaper sites but, at the same time, if the benefits of Web 2.0 are to be realised, perhaps that lies in fewer articles and better moderation. A sort of approach based on ‘never mind the width, feel the quality’. It has to be possible. Alternatively, perhaps one of the benefits of charging for online access is not just support for journalistic quality, as these pages have argued before, but also a re-focusing of the debate engendered within such sites by making them less open to passing trolls.

As regards the academics’ letter: they’ve got more than a point about some of the actions of BA in this dispute and, from the perspective of this particular academic manqué, I like the phrasing of their approach around the issue of the ‘representation gap in UK employment relations’. Such a gap clearly does exist in all too many workplaces up and down the country. From the point of view of this debate, Keith Ewing has taken this on in today’s The Guardian in arguing that there is a human right to engage in strike action. The current laws of this country do not provide a right to strike, but industrial action is never undertaken lightly and remains a legitimate weapon to use against an intransigent employer. The increasingly hardline, right-wing approach to the taking of industrial action over the last twenty years is one that continues to divide this country from our European neighbours and the quality of our democracy is all the poorer for it.

Written by Calvin

26/03/2010 at 5:02 pm

‘Radical change’ called for in France Telecom

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An interim report commissioned by France Telecom is reported to have said that the company has only ‘a few weeks’ to put new HR practices in place following the recent spate of suicides in the company. The report advises the new management team at the company, which took place at the start of March, of the need to ‘take charge and encourage radical change’ at the company if it is to recover its former status.

The report, which does not yet appear to have been leaked in full but which has been confirmed as authentic, has been seen by French and international newspapers. It has been commissioned from an organisation called Technologia whose motto is ‘Health and safety at the heart of decision-making’. In reaching an agreement with most of its trade unions last November, now ratified, France Telecom has already sought to put an end to some of the practices which had been believed to have led to the rise in the number of suicides, which now number 43 since January 2008 and including at least eight since the start of 2010. Nevertheless, the Technologia report, based on a series of 500 interviews with France Telecom employees, makes a series of 107 recommendations to address the crisis, calling in particular on the company to:

Implement a moratorium on reorganizations, closely monitor psychosocial risk factors and create an internal network of mediators to make the personnel department more accessible

– and all on the basis that ‘actions [need to] accompany all the talk‘. The report also calls on the company to institute a network of mediators, 30% external and 70% from inside France Telecom, whose role would be to listen to employees in difficulty and to play a ‘real role of arbitration’, and to undertake mobility moves only where the usefulness of such a move had been tested to the limits and where the employee concerned was provided with a supporting mentor.

The Technologia report is now being discussed with the unions representing France Telecom employees.

Further, it also emerged at the weekend that the Labour Inspectorate has lodged with the Paris prosecutor’s office an 82-page report condemning practices at the company as bullying behaviour likely to endanger the lives of others in the workplace, and which it believed to have stemmed from decisions taken at the highest level of the group.

Both the Technologia report and the Labour Inspectorate one are clearly critical of the approach of the company’s senior management and provide the trade unions with significant additional power in their continuing battle with France Telecom over its reorganisation. Technologia’s page on psycho-social hazards speaks of its role in terms of ‘the resumption of dialogue and building a relationship of trust between the social partners’; that’s likely to be a mighty hard row to hoe in France Telecom, but an approach rooted in the dignity of labour, and which actively promotes the needs of employees, not least in a mental health setting, in corporate restructuring situations has a lot to commend itself.

Written by Calvin

15/03/2010 at 12:08 pm

Prospect statement on Vodafone job cuts

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Prospect has reacted angrily to yesterday’s announcement of job cuts in Vodafone [registration required; limited viewing time; alternative source].

Steve Thomas, Prospect’s National Officer for Vodafone, has contacted the company to express serious concerns over the cuts themselves as well as the complete lack of consultation, Prospect having learned of the cuts via the media. We are also disturbed about reports that individuals are being asked to leave the business without notice.

You can read the full statement here.

Vodafone needs to learn that, whatever co-operation Prospect members are prepared to provide over resourcing decisions, the quid pro quo for that is decent treatment and respect for the contribution they have made during their lives in the company. Where that doesn’t occur, the price of that amongst those left behind is lower morale, lower productivity and lesser co-operation.

Written by Calvin

10/03/2010 at 11:30 am

International Women’s Day

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8 March is International Women’s Day (loading very slowly, today) – a day adopted by the United Nations in 1975 to build support for women’s rights and participation in the political and economic arenas. The banner under which events are taking place this year is ‘Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities, Progress For All‘ and they include an event at the TUC tonight promising ‘a night of comedy, music, poetry, politics and campaigning‘. LabourList is also commemorating the event with a day of women-only blogging, under a female guest editor following Rowenna Davis’s turn in the hot seat last year.

Justice for Colombia, to which Prospect is affiliated, is holding a one hour vigil at the Colombian Embassy today at 4pm to mark International Women’s Day and protest against the ongoing detention of human rights defender Liliany Obando, while Prospect members can download an excellent newsletter celebrating the achievements of women in Prospect.

For as long as inequality remains, we need to be reminded of why, so such special days as these continue to be useful. But, as Michael Foot said:

Describe the challenges by all means, but don’t confuse analysis with action. The one must lead to the other if it is to be useful to people. (Hat-tip: Roger Darlington)

Making International Women’s Day useful to women across the globe via practical action will, I suspect, continue to be a source of challenge for the organisers of such events, and policy-makers more generally, for some time to come.

Written by Calvin

08/03/2010 at 1:33 pm

Reminder: Work Your Proper Hours Day…

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… is today. Today’s the day when the average person who does unpaid overtime would start earning for themselves if they did all their unpaid overtime at the start of the year. Celebrate it!

To coincide, the TUC has published some new analysis of official statistics to highlight those occupations that have the most working hours, particularly those working ‘extreme’ levels of unpaid overtime – i.e. people working more than ten extra hours per week. For this group, this level of unpaid overtime means that Work Your Proper Hours Day is not until at least 26 April (or later, for those working more than ten additional hours per week).

By occupation, the Work Your Proper Hours Day for some key groups of employees for which high levels of unpaid overtime is more common is as follows:

Functional managers – 25 April

Corporate managers and senior officials – 7 May

Business and statistical professionals – 30 April

Quality and customer care managers – 20 April

Legal professionals – 20 April

ICT – 15 April

Business and financial professionals – 2 May

For members of Prospect in a major private sector employer with which we deal, our most recent survey of terms and conditions found out that the average level of unpaid overtime was 8.14 hours per week. At the median salary level of £40,500, this took people’s hourly rate down from £21.56 to £17.58 – indicating an average value to the employer of unpaid overtime of nearly £7,500 per year. And countless costs as regards personal and family lives and relationships.

Getting a work-life balance that works for you as an individual has been at the heart of the union’s continuing worktime, yourtime campaign seeking to promote options that can provide a better work-life balance for individuals. That might entail making small, simple changes or making more significant long-term changes to your working pattern.

The worktime yourtime pages within the Connect sector of Prospect also give more specific advice about particular issues and options for achieving a better work-life balance. Use them!

Written by Calvin

26/02/2010 at 2:09 pm

Pay: prospects for 2010

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In recognition of today’s joint TUC/Incomes Data Services conference on pay bargaining, the TUC has produced a list of ten myths on pay in the context of the recession which you can find both here and on Richard Exell’s post on ToUChstone.

The myths, which are drawn from the different parts of the union movement, are common ones and ones that are likely to appear again and again over the next few months, not least since the spring months are the most significant ones for pay negotiations, with the largest number of pay deals concluded during the January-April period; and there’s also the issue of the forthcoming general election. They’re well worth repeating in these specific contexts, and they do need to be tackled whenever they occur, so here they are in brief:

1. MYTH: above inflation wage increases could set off a damaging wage spiral. REALITY: wages are not driving inflation at the minute and it’s normal in the long-run for wages to increase above the rate of inflation

2. MYTH: further freezes and cuts are needed to make companies profitable again. REALITY: Some companies may be struggling but rates of return remain generous and cuts are likely to be damaging to growth

3. MYTH: Wage freezes have been widespread through the private sector. REALITY: Two-thirds of companies gave rises last year, with a median increase of 2.3%

4. MYTH: Wage freezes will be just as widespread in 2010. REALITY: the economy is growing again and inflation is on the rise. Wage claims, and pay agreements, are likely to follow suit

5. MYTH: Unions have accepted wage freezes because they are too weak to negotiate pay rises. REALITY: Wage freezes have occurred where there are genuine cases of hardship but unions are wise to cases of wage restraint designed to boost company profits

6. MYTH: Public sector pay freezes are an alternative to job losses. REALITY: a false choice, since short-term pay restraint has a limited effect other than on staff morale

7. MYTH: A minimum wage freeze will prevent job losses in the private sector. REALITY: this makes little sense socially, given the background to the recession, or indeed economically since the lowest paid are likely to use more of their wages on spending than on saving

8. MYTH: Raising the minimum wage for young people will make it harder for them to find jobs: REALITY: The recession has hit young people hard, but employment has fared better in low-paying sectors

9. MYTH: Public sector wages rocketed while private sector wages contracted last year. REALITY: data changes caused the discrepancy, not least given the dominance in the average wage figures of the nationalised banks. Since 1999, public sector wages have grown more slowly than those in the private sector.

10. MYTH: Public servants earn more than workers in the private sector. REALITY: this is like comparing apples and pears. Where similar jobs are compared, the differential does not depart strongly from zero.

More myths to the list can always be added: from a purely private-sector perspective, for example, we have the myth (not least in a recession, but not limited to such times) that pay can be meaningfully linked to performance. In the coming weeks and months, this blog will be doing its bit to bust the myths on pay that come our way.

The myths on this list are busted more fully on Richard’s ToUChstone post, while regular readers of ToUChstone will recognise several from individual in-depth postings in recent weeks. As Richard says, the recovery remains fragile and is likely to be threatened by wage restraint. Individual sets of pay negotiations are likely to be dominated more by the circumstances of the organisation concerned, with the economy providing more of a backdrop, but, from a macro perspective, it is clear that a growing economy will be driven by people spending money – and that implies a clear economic need for real wage rises.

Written by Calvin

16/02/2010 at 12:42 pm