Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Posts Tagged ‘Health and safety

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.

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Written by Calvin

26/10/2009 at 12:48 pm

France Telecom unions call days of action on suicides

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The six unions in France Telecom have called for two days of action this week to protest at the rate of suicides taking place in the company, which now total 24 in the last 18 months, many – including the latest – having blamed the climate inside the company. The latest days of action are to take place on 6 and 7 October, the latter coinciding with the World Day for Decent Work, and follow other industrial action which has taken place demanding ‘profound and permanent’ change  in France Telecom’s continued restructuring programme.

The restructuring of the company has hit the company’s managers particularly hard since, under the company’s ‘time to move’ programme, the suspension of which had already been extended from the end of October until the end of the year (see related post below), managers are relocated every three years – and many more frequently – in efficiency measures to respond to changing patterns of demand. Many are moved to call centres with little training and into jobs for which they are ill-suited.

Pressure brought by the workers on the company has yielded results and, in addition to other changes, the company has appointed a supervisor to monitor the internal re-shuffling of jobs [registration required; limited viewing time]. Furthermore, at a meeting with unions yesterday, Didier Lombard, the company’s current chief executive, is reported to have confirmed that ‘mobility is not a dogma’ and, therefore, the end of the systematic moving of managers every three years. In the future, rotational moves would not be compulsory while Lombard committed himself also to a more humane working environment [registration required; limited viewing time] to end stress at work.

The most recent suicide has prompted the resignation of France Telecom’s deputy chief executive, a move which a representative of one of the France Telecom unions stated had created the conditions for a change of strategy and as a first step in rebuilding a minimum of trust [registration required; limited viewing time] between company and employees. French politicians have previously backed Didier Lombard in this ‘difficult and painful’ period [registration required; limited viewing time], despite calls from unions for his dismissal. As some have noted, Lombard has been in post for five years already…

At stake remains how, in a world hit by recession, we deal with change and how we organise society in the light of that: a continuation of the old ways or a profound re-thinking of them in accordance with the new times in which we live.

[Edited on 7 October with new details]

Written by Calvin

05/10/2009 at 1:23 pm

French government gets involved in France Telecom suicides

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Xavier Darcos, labour minister in the French government, which still owns a 27% stake in France Telecom, met the Chair and Chief Executive of France Telecom on Tuesday this week [most of the links on this page require registration and have limited viewing time] following union-led outcry over a spate of suicides in the company. The company has also been requested by finance minister Christine Lagarde to convene an extraordinary board meeting specifically to discuss the issue.

This follows two suicide attempts last week, one of which was successful, with stress arising from intensified work pressures associated with the restructuring of France Telecom definitely attributed in one of them while the other concerned someone who had been involved in discussions on restructuring services. Furthermore, a 53-year-old senior manager in a France Telecom customer service agency was found unconscious on the floor of her office on Monday this week following an overdose. Her condition is not life threatening but followed news that she was to be posted to another part of the country for the third time in a year. A total of 23 France Telecom employees are known to have committed suicide since February 2008.

The French trade unions have criticised the company for not doing enough to assist staff deal with the stress arising from the restructuring programme, while rallies have also been held. For the Confederation Generale du Travail, Christian Mathorel blamed the crisis on the strategic choices made in the obssessive search for profit, while the Confederation Francaise Democratique du Travail has previously blamed the spate of suicides on the job-cutting management style at the company. Unions are looking for an independent parliamentary commission of inquiry into the deaths.

France Telecom, which denies that suicides are on the increase in the company (although, given that higher numbers of suicides in previous years will have been at a time when its employment levels were much higher, the rate at which suicides are taking place may well be on the increase) has said that the restructuring programme cannot be halted but has, nevertheless, suspended it until the end of October in order to re-evaluate the conditions under which it is taking place. It will also increase medical and social assistance for employees, stepping up its training of managers to help them detect potential suicide cases and introducing a telephone distress line and other psychological counselling measures, and will employ more human resource officers at the local level. It has also noticeably moderated its language following the meeting with the French labour minister, pledging to end the ‘shocking… infernal spiral’ of deaths.

The restructuring of France Telecom, which employs around 100,000 people, is associated with the increasing commercialisation of the company and has been accompanied by 22,000 job losses in the last three years. There have been no compulsory redundancies – all job losses have been achieved through natural attrition – but this has clearly taken a heavy toll on those left behind. This will have a heavy resonance for Connect members and our own 2009 survey on working for BT, the analysis of which is now underway, will be closely examining stress levels and setting them into the context of our previous results on the issue.

[Edited on 16 September to correct some details and add others]

Written by Calvin

15/09/2009 at 10:26 am