“Revolting Prostitutes” Book Launch

Book coverOn the 8th of November, CERIC hosted a panel discussion as a book launch event for the highly anticipated book Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Juno Mac and Molly Smith. Mac and Smith are sex worker rights activists with SWARM and SCOT-PEP, and their book is a deeply researched yet highly accessible analysis of current sex work debates. Juno Mac is also known for her TED talk ‘The laws that sex workers really want’.

Revolting Prostitutes discusses current debates on sex work, national and international sex worker self-organisation, and how sex worker rights fit within an intersectional critique of inequality in society. Challenging both sides of the sex work debates in the UK (those who see sex work as a vocation and those who believe sex work is inherently violence against women), Mac and Smith argue that sex work is inherently violent not because of the sex involved, but because it is work.

CERIC is one of the leading research institutes in the UK when it comes to expertise on sex work as a topic of labour and work. The organiser and panel chair Lilith Brouwers is a CERIC postgraduate researcher into employment relations in sex work in England. Joining Juno Mac and Molly Smith on the panel was Nadine Gloss, CERIC postgraduate researcher into sex worker self-organisation and representation in Germany.

After an introduction of all panel members, Mac and Smith explained about the importance of seeing sex work as an issue of labour, and the influence this has had on their book. With an analysis of sex work as a form of labour, academics and activists can use a rights framework for their work, strengthening the demands sex worker organisations make of institutions like governments, police, NGOs and employers.

Nadine Gloss discussed the main obstacles she found in researching sex worker organisation: gaining access to and trust from sex workers and sex worker-led organisations. With any labour ethnographic research comes the challenge of finding participants willing to be observed within their organisation, but understandably sex workers are more wary than most of researchers misrepresenting their work.

Another point of discussion was the differences panel members had noticed between sex worker organising in the UK and in Germany. While sex worker led organisations in Germany aim to present sex work as a free choice – in response to discourses which present sex workers as victims – UK sex worker rights organisations identify closer to working class movements which do not present work as inherently positive. This identification specifically as workers also builds solidarity between other social movements such as the migrant rights, prison abolitionist, and LGBT+ rights movements.

After questions from attendants of the event, Mac and Smith were kind enough to sign copies of their book during the wine reception following the panel.

Book Launch

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Studying Finnish labour law: reflections from a research visit to Leeds

by Liisa Lähteenmäki, Postdoctoral Research Fellow (University of Turku)

Liisa Lahteenmaki presenting at CERIC Seminar

Liisa Lahteenmaki talks about labour law and political discourses in Finland.

I had great pleasure to be a visiting researcher at the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) in September-October 2018. I found CERIC to be an inspiring, multi-disciplinary research environment hosting a wide array of projects dealing with contemporary key employment issues, such as platform employment, employees’ health and welfare, and regulation of transnational labour markets. I also had the opportunity to give a CERIC research seminar about my current research project, which examines the changes made to the Finnish labour and employment legislation during the last 20 years.

Since 2003, Finland has witnessed a period of conservative or right-wing governments, the country being led by either the Centre party or the National Coalition. Historically, protective and empowering labour and employment legislation was forged by social democratic governments, and the period from the 1970s throughout the 1980s is carved into the collective memory of the nation as the years of stable progress in employment rights, labour protections and social welfare. This development was abruptly broken by the 1990s recession as the repercussions mainly meant degradation of welfare, wages, education, health services and stable employment.

Since the 1990s, neoliberal policies and market enhancing ideologies have swept Finland similarly to any other country, rendering the currency and ideals of labour protection and social welfare under attack. The triumphs of the welfare state were suddenly conceptualized as problems, even obstacles to economic growth. These turns have inevitably had effects on law-making.

Besides being interested in the trends and changes in labour and employment legislation per se, my research discusses the interplay between legislation, the reality of the labour markets, and other employment relevant phenomena in the Finnish society. I am particularly interested in the practice of law-making bases on the ideals of unbiased information and broad participation while the outcome, the actual law, is seen as a result of disinterested and rational decision making. Furthermore, I am interested in examining the interplay of legislation imposed and passed in ‘separate’ fields of society that are nevertheless always unavoidably interconnected: Legislation regulating migration, economy or human rights have percussions in the labour markets and vice versa, and this tends to be  ignored in discussions about changing employment and welfare.

Law itself upholds practices of sectoral decision making by, for example, restricting assessments of influence to sometimes generic issues (e.g. influences on the economy and administrative burdens), and by repeating the idea of law as an endogenous system, with its own internal rules and discourses. Laws regulating employment nevertheless always influence a multitude of other domains in everyday life: family and habitation, migration, and education, just to mention a few. Also, events taking place in ‘real life’ – that is, migration, families and lifestyle choices people make – do affect labour market outcomes. In this vein, my research examines what the possible repercussions of labour legislation are beyond the obvious, and how this ‘two-way traffic’ should be better taken into account when planning and justifying new labour legislation.

From the starting point of the idea of social protection as a critical concept, I will be evaluating the changes in the Contracts of Employment Act, the Health and Safety at Work Act, and the Unemployment Benefits Act. My research will ask whether we are still following the original paradigm and ideals of labour law (protecting the weaker party of the employment relationship) and Nordic welfare state (equality and leveling down of social and economic differences) when making changes to labour legislation. Borrowing from Lappi-Seppälä (2007) and Pratt (2008), I will use the idea of Scandinavian Exceptionalism in mapping the trends of labour legislation through some of the most critical years in the Finnish economy: From the unparalleled economic depression of the 1990s to the joining to the EU, the miracle of Nokia, the closures of the paper mills, and the rise of the gaming industry (e.g. Supercell and Rovio) in the 2000s. While Lappi-Seppälä and Pratt refer to the penal policies and the low levels of imprisonment in the Nordic countries, I will use the term in reference to the employment policies which have traditionally emphasized both the social democratic model of tripartite negotiations and the recognition of the unions, as well as the idea of social protection over maximum profits and insecure employment.

It truly was encouraging to be part of this community for a while. I would like to express my gratitude especially to CERIC Member Dr. Jo Ingold for taking an active part in organizing my visit. I hope that my visit in CERIC and Leeds University will lead to inspiring cooperation as my aim is to broaden my research to include international comparisons. It would indeed be an honour to work together again with CERIC colleagues.

CERIC Doctoral Conference 2018

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Emma Partlow

By Emma Partlow, Postgraduate Researcher, Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology (University of Birmingham)

I was honoured to have been invited to present my research at the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) Doctoral Conference on the 20th June at Leeds University Business School. As a doctoral student from the University of Birmingham, it was a pleasure to network within a room full of people who articulated original and innovative research in such an engaging manner.

The conference encompassed a wide-range of disciplines, including: Social Policy, Languages and Cultural Studies, Psychology, Performance and Cultural Industries and of course, Business and Management in its many forms. It was exciting to see how a diverse range of talks could marry together under the banner of Inequalities in the Workplace. These talks encompassed everything from: sexual harassment in the workplace, strategic human resource management, apprenticeships, inequalities in skills developments during recessions, collective labour conflicts in China, case study on the Nigerian Electricity Distribution Sector, sex work, organisational stress management, pay gaps and inequality, labour insecurity, marginalisation of theatre lighting designers, power in modern management, and the employment experiences of people with Multiple Sclerosis. Not forgetting the key note talk from Professor Chris Forde who kicked off the day so eloquently with the ‘Inequalities of Work in the 21st Century – The Rise of the Gig Economy’.

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Participants of the Doctoral Conference

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to present my research project looking at the impact of equalities legislation on disabled people in the workplace, which critically analyses the concept of ‘reasonable adjustments’ in the policy context of the Government’s White Paper Improving Lives. The audience were receptive to my theoretical framing, which sees me draw upon the concept of bio-power and subtle coercion in the form of Libertarian Paternalism.

Doctoral students eloquently presented their work and the day flew by with methodological discussions, engaging debate and suggestions within an entirely supportive and ‘safe’ space. It has to be said that this was one of the most supportive academic spaces I have had the pleasure to participate in. The development of spaces where doctoral students can engage in supportive discussion about their work is important and something we must actively continue to arrange.  I am sure I am not alone when I say that questions, comments and suggestions received in this manner are invaluable and can go a long way in supporting a thought-process or the development of ideas.

I would like to thank CERIC and Leeds University Business School for their generosity and hospitality. Not only did they host this doctoral conference and provided refreshments and lunch but prizes were provided for the prize winners and I am honoured to have been chosen as one of these prize winners. The prizes were put forward to help with the cost of attending conferences of choice; I think this is an excellent incentive to encourage people to share their work, regardless of the stage they are at within their doctoral journey.

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From left to right: joint 1st prize winner for best paper presentation Maisie Roberts (CERIC), Dr Jo Ingold, joint 1st prize winner  Marina Boulos (CERIC), joint winner for the best poster presentation Sophie Morrell (Bradford) and 2nd prize winner for best paper presentation Emma Partlow (Birmingham)

The success of this doctoral conference has inspired me to adopt the theme of ‘Inequalities and Work’ to host a conference at the University of Birmingham so please do watch this space! It would be my pleasure to welcome some familiar and friendly faces to Birmingham and to hear how your work has developed since this event.

Brexit, EU labour migration & worker rights: the story so far

Immigration and restricting EU migrant rights to freedom of movement were core issues in the lead up to the referendum vote, yet agreement on the detail of a new UK immigration policy continues to be a way off, leaving employers, workers and their families in limbo. Researchers based in the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) at LUBS working on labour migration, mobility and changing patterns of work, have been working with different interest groups (business, unions and civil society) in a unique way to enhance understanding of how these groups are coping with the uncertain impacts of the Brexit vote. This exploratory research provides insight into the ongoing challenges of trying to anticipate, respond to and shape migration policy for and on behalf of their members in an uncertain context. This blog sets out the background and how the CERIC team’s research agenda is being shaped by bringing different interest groups together on this emotive and evolving topic.

Current context

After the BREXIT vote in June 2016, UK and EU negotiators signaled that reaching agreement on the rights of EU and UK citizens already living in another member state was a priority. Yet, it was only on 8th of December 2017 that UK and EU negotiators published a joint report outlining principles on the treatment of EEA nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU and on 21st June 2018, that the UK government announced details of the ‘settled status[1]’ scheme. Campaign groups point to many ‘unsettled’ questions about this process and the new forms of regulation of EU labour mobility post-Brexit. An immigration bill was announced in January 2017 but was subsequently put on hold until wider Brexit negotiations are progressed. The UK government has indicated EU freedom of movement will end, but migration policy continues to be shaped by the wider negotiations with the EU and ongoing internal political processes and policy analysis. The Home Secretary instructed the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC)[2] to report by September 2018 on the impact of EEA workers on the UK labour market and the Home Affairs Select Committee is undertaking an inquiry into Post-Brexit Migration Policy.[3] Thus, there continues to be both formal and informal spaces for dialogue between different groups of social actors seeking to shape these outcomes.

While these deliberative processes are ongoing, net migration has slowed considerably since the referendum vote. According to the ONS[4], the largest drop in net migration to the UK to occur in decades was experienced in the period June 2016 to June 2017 falling from 336,000 to 230,000: three quarters of this fall was due to the drop in migration from the EU. More recent statistics show that migration from the EU has continued to fall. The ONS reports notes that ‘the numbers of EU citizens coming to the UK looking for work decreased by 58,000 over the year to September 2017, particularly driven by the fall in numbers of citizens from EU15 and EU8[5] countries (24,000 and 18,000 respectively). For the latter, this is the lowest number recorded since accession. Recent polls[6] suggest that the UK general public’s perception of immigration has softened since the Brexit referendum, yet the ONS migration data are indicative of the material effects felt by workers, and by extension employers, of the ongoing uncertainty of how the UK will regulate EU labour mobility post-Brexit.

Employers, legal advisors, trade unions, civil society and faith groups and local, national and international authorities all have concerns around the implications of Brexit for their various constituents and are variously involved in the political debates noted above. The positions and actions of these different interest groups, therefore, have important implications for the changing socio-economic relationship between the UK and the European Union and for the UK’s own social model. Some of these groups seek to be a counterweighing power to social, political and media forces seeking a ‘hard’ Brexit outcome and stricter regulation of EU labour migration to the UK. These groups are also critical in shaping the environment that affects the everyday experience of those that exercised their right to free movement between the UK and the EU. CERIC’s research has been on exploring actions and reactions of these groups within this extraordinary period of uncertainty by asking a set of inter-related questions: How do different social actors imagine the migration landscape post-Brexit? What challenges and consequences of Brexit do they anticipate for labour mobility? How are they formulating policy positions and trying to shape the debate around the new post-Brexit immigration system?

 

Brexit roundtable

CERIC BREXIT and labour mobility roundtable
September 2017

By critically exploring the competing visions of what the UK’s new social model might look like and bringing together the voices of different interest groups we are generating new data and promoting dialogue as part of our commitment to developing research that is co-produced: giving different stakeholders a voice in shaping the key research questions and design[7]. The framing of these questions aims to not only understand and amplify these diverse voices but also to bring different actors together to discuss complex questions. To realise this aim CERIC researchers have undertaken scoping interviews and both hosting and participating in roundtable events exploring common concerns and areas of difference with respect to the question of labour mobility around four connected and overlapping themes, employment and legal frameworks; social protection; regulating labour mobility and migration policy. For example, in September 2017, CERIC held a roundtable with employer groups including the Chamber of Commerce and Sector Skills bodies, civil society organisations campaigning for the rights of EU citizens in the UK and trade unions. Members of the CERIC team have also participated in roundtable events hosted by other partners including the Chamber of Commerce and regional migrant support networks and undertaken wider interviews with employment lawyers, faith and community organisations. The following summarises the themes emerging from these discussions and we conclude by setting out the implications for our research agenda.

 

The significance of labour mobility and freedom of movement

The different groups taking part in the research had contrasting positions in advance of the referendum vote. For example, most, but not all, trade unions advocated for ‘remain’ and were generally in favour of continuation of the free movement of workers. Business organisations took a more neutral stance due, in part, to business members being both ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ supporters, reflecting that some sectors such as hospitality, construction and the public sector are much more likely to be adversely affected by restrictions in the movement of EU workers, whereas other parts of their constituency were less likely to employ migrant workers. Unsurprisingly, those campaigning for the rights of EU citizens were in favour of remaining in the EU. Overall there was limited reflection given by employer or worker representatives on the merits or challenges presented by the existing policy of freedom of movement. Much more emphasis was placed on what might come next. There was an acceptance (albeit for some, a very reluctant acceptance) that there will be restrictions placed on future migration from the EU.

The discussion developed more broadly to cover future scenarios for the UK economy informed, in the main, by existing understanding of what had led to pre-Brexit levels of EU worker migration to the UK. These drivers were seen by business and worker representatives as inextricably linked to economic considerations such as UK and EU labour markets, pay and wages, skills supply and demand, levels of employment (and under-employment) and UK trade and investment decisions. Yet, the civil society groups that were campaigning for the rights of EU citizens in the UK reminded us that, while key drivers for migration is often work and employment, there also many social factors that shape labour mobility such as the quest for family re-union or education. In this regard a worrying report by colleagues at the University of Birmingham has been published recently[8], highlighting the legal limbo in which many EU families will find themselves in the field of family re-union. These observations made it problematic to talk about migration policy in isolation and illustrates the need for future migration policy to be developed with reference to wider policy considerations.  Rather than re-thinking the regulation of migration in isolation, remarks from the participants reflect that post-Brexit migration policy needs to be developed in the context of wider economic and social considerations.  This accords for example with the objectives of the current MAC commission on the employment of EEA workers which seeks to ‘aligning the UK immigration system with a modern industrial strategy (p20),’ yet many other aspects of related policy also need to be considered in terms the affect worker rights, labour standards, social and welfare rights.

Visions for EU labour migration under different Brexit scenarios

Different visions of future migration policy were expressed by the various stakeholder groups. Employer organisations taking part in the CERIC research were, over-time, less ardently free market oriented than might have been expected.  Initial positions stated by employer organisations in the months immediately after the referendum strongly expressed the desire for open migration regimes to meet the needs of employers seeking sourcing both high and lower skilled workers[9].  Over time, the tone expressed by some employer groups had shifted slightly to the acceptance of a migration system that may be more restrictive due to the need to be mindful of ‘politically acceptable’ outcomes. FlipchartHowever, umbrella organisations such as the CBI and Chamber have continued to push government for greater certainty on the rights of their EU workers, on hiring from EU countries during the negotiation period and to avoid overly bureaucratic processes for post-Brexit hires. One employer group, the CITB, were hopeful that a case could be made for special conditions to more easily allow recruitment from the EU to address ‘strategically important’ skills shortages. Others, such as the British Hospitality Association (BHA) have suggested a sector-based quota system for hospitality, considering that predicted annual recruitment need is over 100,000 people, assuming zero labour turnover amongst British born workers.[10]  The likely restrictions associated to the terms of residency for workers under these quota systems need however to be considered as part of the wider social implications that migration reform has on migrants’ rights and those of their families.

debateThe TUC and union participants in the CERIC roundtable were more clearly advocating for free movement and for the importance of free trade and the single market as an important mechanism in establishing a ‘level playing field’ making particular reference to the value of the Social Chapter[11] and its benefits for both ‘good’ businesses and for workers. Underpinning this position was a common assumption that withdrawal from the EU would lead to employment protections being weakened, threatening a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of worker rights and employment practices that also adversely affect those ‘good’ employers. There have been public assurances from the Government that workers’ rights will be maintained and even strengthened but many, including trade unionists, remain skeptical that this will be the case.

Current activity

The current activity of different interest groups could be grouped into three categories: developing more intelligence on labour mobility issues affecting members; developing support and guidance for constituents and looking to shape the political debate. The employer bodies participating in CERIC discussions were trying to improve data and analysis on the use of migrant labour amongst their membership to help assess the potential impact on the future workforce. They were also developing understanding of the potential for and limitations of employers using alternative strategies to make up for any loss of EU worker recruitment[12] through for example more training and development of indigenous workers or investment in new technologies. Yet the employer groups noted that gaps remained in their understanding of patterns of migrant labour demand or the longer term historical drivers that had shaped labour migration in specific sectors and regions. Many unions and employers were using legal services to keep themselves up to date with the negotiations between the UK and the EU, advising EU migrants among their members on how to apply for permanent residence under the current regulation. For example, the BHA is providing materials to help ensure that workers can exercise their rights to certification of permanent residency where applicable. This work also aims to have a positive effect in terms of boosting goodwill with EU workers towards hospitality sector employers. Trade unions were also directly engaging with EU migrant workers and community networks to provide advice to those concerned about their rights during the transition period.

Influencing the debate

CERIC’s initial research involved participants from international, national and regional organisations in order to explore the nature of dialogue at, and between, different levels.  At the international level, UK civil society groups have been campaigning to develop alliances with those leading campaigns promoting the interests of UK citizens in Europe and engaging directly with the EU negotiators to stress that EU labour mobility should be an intrinsic part of integration undertaken by the people of Europe themselves rather than a purely economic matter deriving from the rules of the single market. At the national level, all groups are making representations to government through formal and informal channels including to the relevant parliamentary scrutiny committees of DEXEU and Economic Affairs and the Home Office appointed commission on EEA migration being undertaken by the MAC. Regional groups, perhaps inevitably, made reference to the possibility of regional flexibilities in any migration system, notably to meet particularly localised skills needs. This focus is shaped by broader political tensions around the devolution of powers to the UK nations and regions of the UK including the devolution of budgets around skills training and infrastructure. This view was given focus by an early report by the Institute of Public Policy Research which contained six proposed options for the new immigration policy one of which included the suggestion of sub-state solutions to migration policy[13].

Conflicting and Common issues

Our roundtable discussions included some robust (yet cordial) difference of opinion around:  visions of future policy and the impact of new migration regulations on employers and citizens. In particular we noticed different understandings of what “regulation” means. Employer bodies associated migration policies with the possible risk of increased bureaucracy, notably at the point of recruitment. In contrast, trade union representatives regarded regulation positively in the form of protections of standards for workers. Unions stressed that proposals requiring workers to have employer sponsors could make migrant workers more dependent upon those employers, limiting their voice. An obvious paradox emerges in that employers were highlighting the cost of compliance and unions the cost of non-compliance or regulation that enables the potential for greater exploitation of workers, thereby lowering labour standards.

In terms of common threads, there were four areas where there was a convergence of views: firstly, the need to assure security for those EU workers already in the UK and their families; secondly, that student numbers should not be included in migration statistics; and, thirdly, that there was need for greater dialogue between different groups of stakeholders to build a better consensus on the way forward, not just toward Brexit, but after the exit date and beyond. Finally, it was also notable that there was a common view amongst stakeholders that investment in local, indigenous, labour was seen as a possible alternative strategy that could mitigate against the need for migrant labour. This runs counter to an alternative perspective: the  skills and training of indigenous workers could be seen as positively related to the use of migrant labour. This is a theme that the interim MAC report of March 2018 noted,[14] providing illustrations of how the recruitment of skilled European workers contributed to improved training levels. The final report by MAC on EEA workers, due in September 2018, will look specifically at the impact of the employment of EEA workers on the UK resident population, including the impact on training.

Next steps

It remains to be seen how UK government and EU negotiators will re-shape labour migration regulation to adequately address the demands of civic, business and labour organisations in the UK while giving regard to the outcome of the referendum vote. This continues to take place within an uncertain and volatile political environment.  The early stage research undertaken by CERIC researchers has provided insights into the ongoing challenges and activity of different groups trying to anticipate and shape policy appropriately for and on behalf of their members. Key themes emerged for the future directions for research. This includes the need to improve understanding of the regional and sectoral dimensions of the ‘EU workforce’, how patterns of migrant employment have developed and the roles that different institutional actors have played in facilitating these trends and finally, how migration policy will evolve in relation to related (socio-) economic policy such as the UK Industrial Strategy.

This requires taking more historical and sociologically informed perspectives to help move the debate forward. A deeper analysis will help different interest groups anticipate the implications of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ BREXIT scenarios. The co-production approach has illustrated the willingness of different parties to strengthen and deepen the level of debate, enhance understanding of different positions and provide opportunities to influence debate at the local, national and international levels. Participants recognised the value of exploring policy proposals through joint analysis of tensions and common ground to help unpack the content of proposed policy develop understanding of potential impacts on the rights and responsibilities of different groups helping to move the debate beyond current political narratives focused primarily on annual immigration targets. CERIC researchers will continue to bring these voices together, highlighting points of tensions as well as commonalities, contributing to the development of research informed public debate and policy that will shape the social model of a post-Brexit Britain that will, whatever the outcome of specific migration policy, to continue to be inextricably linked to that of its European neighbours.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/settled-status-eu-citizens-families/applying-for-settled-status

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/impact-of-eea-and-non-eea-workers-in-uk-labour-market-responses

[3] https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/home-affairs-committee/inquiries/parliament-2017/inquiry4/

[4] Office for National statistics. Migration Statistics Quarterly Report: February 2018 Available at:  https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/internationalmigration/bulletins/migrationstatisticsquarterlyreport/february2018#fewer-eu-migrants-coming-to-the-uk-for-work

[5] EU15 country members prior to the 2004 enlargement; EU8 those joining in the 2004 enlargement

[6] YouGov Top Issues Trackers (2017-2018); Ipsos-MORI Issues Index (May2018)

[7] For a discussion of co-production in social science research see for example https://www.n8research.org.uk/view/5163/Final-Report-Co-Production-2016-01-20.pdf

[8] https://eurochildren.info/2018/03/28/a-generation-of-children-of-eu-parents-to-be-lost-in-the-intricacies-of-brexit-research-reveals/

[9] http://www.britishchambers.org.uk/policy-maker/policy-reports-and-publications/business-brexit-priorities.html

[10] http://www.bha.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/BHA-Brexit-Consultation-11116.pdf

[11] https://www.coe.int/en/web/turin-european-social-charter

[12] http://www.britishchambers.org.uk/Business%20Brexit%20Checklist%20BCC.pdf

[13] https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/an-immigration-strategy-for-the-uk

[14] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/694494/eea-workers-uk-labour-market-interim-update.pdf

CERIC members publish Work, Employment and Society Special Issue

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Early career researchers, Gabriella Alberti, Ioulia Bessa, Kate Hardy, Vera Trappmann and Charles Umney have published a Special Issue of the high-ranking journal Work, Employment and Society.

The issue “In, Against and Beyond Precarity: The Struggles of Insecure Workers” contains pieces spanning geographic contexts from China to Chile and Britain to Brussels. The issue follows the 2016 Work, Employment and Society conference which was organised and hosted by Centre of Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) at the University of Leeds. Authors from Finland, Hong Kong, Germany, Denmark, Peru and the UK have contributed excellent pieces on workers including taxi-drivers, couriers, managers, mine and public-sector workers. In the round, they offer a close interrogation of the notion of precarity and the insecurity it produces, bringing in issues relating to worker struggle, the standard employment relationship and supply chain.

In their introduction, the CERIC editors take to task the concept of ‘precarity’, arguing instead that a focus on ‘processes of precarisation’ may be more analytically helpful for understanding the range of contexts in which the term is applied. They also point to the need to think about work and labour in the broadest terms, emphasizing a ‘need to address precariousness in the realm of social reproduction and post-wage politics’ as well as more formal studies of employment.

The Special Issue is on Open Access until 2nd July.

The productivity crisis and the role of trade unions: partnership, productivity and skills in the UK

Bert Clough CERIC

Bert Clough, Visiting Professor, CERIC

As the Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman, has stated “productivity isn’t everything but in the long run it is almost everything”. A nation’s ability to improve its standard of living depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its hourly output per worker. That is why increasing productivity should be as important for trade unions as securing the fairer distribution of economic returns of GDP. But productivity has virtually flatlined since the financial crisis in 2008/9. Even more concerning is that the UK has the widest productivity gap with the G7 countries average since the mid-1990s. The General Secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, has warned that the “productivity headache is a self-inflicted wound” resulting from years of cuts and low public investment. The TUC believes that enhanced productivity can only be achieved in investment and embedded in a culture of positive labour relations; with the workforce and their employers becoming “productivity partners”. This requires unions to adopt strategies based on integrative, not just distributive, bargaining.

Can such rhetoric about such social partnership arrangements over productivity be made reality? In 2000, as part of his Productivity Initiative, Gordon Brown asked the TUC and CBI to join forces to identify key priorities and joint recommendations to the Treasury on how to enhance productivity.  One key driver that was identified was that of skills. In a recent research paper, I have sought to assess the effectiveness of the skills strand of the initiative. As part of the Chancellor’s strategy to close the wide productivity gap with UK major competitors by 2010, the aim was for young people and adults to have knowledge and skills that matched the best in the world.

A fragile social partnership over skills had existed during the era of neo-corporatism in the 1970s. But this was ended by the Thatcher government, which abolished tripartite institutions such as the Manpower Services Commission and most of the industry training boards. New Labour was not however about devolving decisions over skills formation to social partners and restoring neo-corporate institutions. Nor was the “Third Way” about reintroducing training levies or establishing statutory collective bargaining over training. The Productivity Initiative was thus constrained by what has been described as a “social-democratic variant of labour market neo-liberalism”. Another constraint was the divergent approaches of the social partners to workforce development. Whereas the TUC has traditionally had a more expansive, employment-focussed approach that supported state intervention, the CBI has had a restrictive employer-focussed approach that cleaved to voluntarism. As a result, the remit of the skills working group under the Productivity Initiative (which was chaired by the then TUC General Secretary – John Monks) was narrow. The remit confined itself to four priorities which conveniently reflected the Government’s vocational education and training (VET) strategy:

  1. increasing the proportion of the adult workforce qualified to Level 2;
  2. tackling the basic skills problems of individuals;
  3. increasing the take-up of Investors in People by small organisations;
  4. improving VET delivery.

The major deficiencies in the exercise was that it was that it confined itself to the supply side as opposed to the demand side. It did not address the key skills components that help drive productivity – their utilisation and higher levels of training such as management and apprentice training which give high economic returns. These were policy areas that the CBI regarded as being subject to employer prerogative and therefore off a social partnership agenda.

The CBI wanted carrots but no sticks. The TUC wanted sticks but realised that it could only realistically press for individual entitlements to training. The working group did recommend carrots for employers to train. This took the form of employer tax credits to incentivise companies to train up to level 2 and basic skills and for small companies to commit to the Investors in People (IiP) standard. The Treasury however favoured a more targeted approach; introducing state subsidies to employers training workers to recognised qualifications through the Employer Training Pilots (ETP) (later universalised as Train to Gain). Direct subsidies were also given to small companies to prepare for IiP accreditation, through the Small Firms Initiative.

Trade unions (with the enhanced capacity provided by the Union Learning Fund and trained union learning reps) helped ETP to target workers with low or no qualifications. The union view was that helping their members to obtain basic skills and Level 2 qualifications could minimise social exclusion and lead to possible progression to higher levels, with ultimately higher returns.  Although the primary objective of ETP and its successor Train to Gain was to increase employer demand for workforce training, the incidence of deadweight and substitution indicated that such an objective had not been substantially met and provided the Coalition Government with the excuse to end the scheme.

New Labour had adopted a social-democratic variant of a neo-liberalist approach to interventions in the labour market. The weakness of this approach was that it left the vast bulk of skills policy and practice outside the industrial relations system. This approach together with the absence of robust social partnership institutions to oversee VET from the 1980s to the present day has enabled successive governments to adopt a top- down approach. It has resulted in the churning of supply-side policy initiatives, chasing national qualification targets, which have had little effect on stimulating employer demand or engaging with the long tail of SME “productivity laggards”.

A key factor in enhancing productivity is the utilisation of skills, but that was virtually ignored by the Labour Government and subsequent governments.  A recent government Foresight report “The Future of Skills and Lifelong Learning” has found however that the UK is the second lowest nation in the EU in utilising skills. Moving towards the levels of skills utilisation seen in Germany and France could boost productivity by as much as £5.5 bn.

The daunting challenge facing unions is how to build their capacity to engage with employers on measures to increase productivity through high involvement work practices and to reap the ensuing benefits through collective bargaining over skills. The lessons learnt from New Labour’s Productivity Initiative was that peak-level social partnership within a voluntary system is unable to deliver such objectives. This has been further limited by a significant decline in union learning capacity, as a result of government austerity measures and the economic downturn since 2010.

So, what is required are robust social partnership institutions with devolved regulatory powers. Their objective should be to raise productivity through assisting employers to adopt high performance and high involvement work practices. This would include promoting high utilisation of skills and ensuring a more equal distribution of training opportunities throughout the workforce. This fundamental change will not come about through yet another central government “quick-fix” initiative from above. It needs to come from below and be owned by both employers and unions.

Developing such a progressive culture could best begin in unionised workplaces. This, however, requires a step change for unions:  moving from conflict to cooperation as their main new source of influence. It does require, however, a rebalancing of power between unions and employers. Ensuring that union reps are full partners requires two measures. Firstly, collective bargaining over training and work organisation must become an integral part of union recognition.  Secondly, there needs to be capacity -building initiatives (at possibly sector or Local Enterprise Partnership level) to provide unions as well as employers with the tools to drive this productivity partnership agenda forward. The long-term objective would be more high- performance and high -involvement workplaces, with employees as well as employers sharing the benefits from the increased productivity.

But does the present government’s industrial strategy address this fundamental challenge? It certainly sets out new initiatives such as a National Retraining Scheme and government /industry partnerships to increase productivity in key sectors. In his November Budget, the Chancellor even confirmed that the government would enter into a formal skills partnership with the TUC and CBI, to develop the scheme. The aim of the partnership is to help set the strategic priorities for the scheme and oversee its implementation, working with new Skills Advisory Panels to ensure that local economies’ needs are reflected. But it must not be just a top-down approach.

The litmus test will be how effective the partnership is in persuading the long tail of productivity laggards to increase the utilisation of the skills of their workforce. This requires recognition of the potential of trade unions at sectoral and company level to form productivity partnerships with employers.  This is the key to develop high-performance and high-involvement workplaces, where employees are rewarded for their increased productivity. The short-comings of the 2001 Productivity Initiative must be avoided. History must not be allowed to repeat itself.

Diane Reay’s “Miseducation”: a personal reflection (by Jo Ingold)

miseducation picMiseducation Inequality, education and the working classes by Diane Reay brings together threads from a wealth of Reay’s research on working-class experiences of education, as well as her own personal journey from working-classness to Professor at an elite institution. Reading Miseducation was enlightening for me on many levels, as well as being a bit of a sense-making process, both professionally and personally. I’ll admit right from the start that I’ve largely avoided talking about class in my academic work, largely because it has been too personal. So, (much like Miseducation itself) what follows is a reflection of Reay’s Miseducation that combines the academic and the personal.

Reay takes as her starting point Jackson and Marsden’s seminal 1966 book Education and the Working Class. A key difference between when Jackson and Marsden wrote their famous work and now is that back in the 1960s 60% of the population identified as working-class. Now this is only 40%. But Reay finds that a shocking level of class inequality still persists in the English education system. In particular, she highlights the significant increase in testing and the narrowing of the curriculum in schools (aspects of which I am only too aware now as a parent). Secondly, she points to the policy shift towards academies and free schools, which have increased selectivity, largely leaving working-class kids behind. A 2013 OECD report that Reay cites early in the book (p.50) concluded that schools in England are the most socially segregated in the developed world, especially for poor and migrant families.

In secondary school I was one of the working-class kids Reay talks about, who was ‘relegated’ to the bottom set (p.77). My local primary school (incidentally where my father had also gone to school) was what we would probably now call a ‘sink school’. My mother fought successfully to get me into a ‘better’ school in the ‘posher’ part of town. But when I got to high school I was put in the bottom set with not a single kid from my primary school, but with kids from our (poorer) part of town. This isn’t just about me having an overinflated sense of my own capabilities. Years after I left high school, my final year primary teacher told me that she’d tried to get me into a higher set, but didn’t win the argument with the school. At the time, my parents complained to the headteacher that I was finding the school work in the bottom set unchallenging. They were told that nothing could be done until after the end of the first year exams when, if I proved myself, I would be moved up. At the end of the year I was indeed moved up. But by then friendship groups had been established and I had effectively lost a year of secondary schooling.

Another rather strange and revealing example of how class impacts on working-class kids became apparent to me only a few years ago when I got hold of my medical notes. In these, I discovered (from Pre-Data Protection Act) that a clinician who I saw aged 15 had put in my notes that I had ‘aspirations that were likely beyond my academic abilities’. This was a clinician, not even a teacher! The importance of including this is to say that these are the kinds of assumptions and judgements made about working-class kids that Reay talks about, who start off life with the odds firmly stacked against them by many in positions of power.

Another key driver of inequalities for working class kids that Reay highlights are the class divisions in university education. In particular, she points to the exacerbation of a two-tier system of ‘elite’ and ‘inferior’ institutions largely as a result of recent funding changes. She argues that ‘Elitist processes masquerading as meritocracy are just as evident in the English education system as they were 50 years ago in the 1960s; but the primary engines of this pseudo meritocracy are no longer the grammar schools but the elite universities’ (p.178). Another, more pernicious, factor that Reay identifies is that failure is now seen as the fault of the working-class individual, rather than anything more systemic (p.180).

In relation to universities, Reay also powerfully talks about the cultural and social capital that you lack as an individual when you’re working-class and trying to gain entry to a university. No one in my family was familiar with the university environment. But I was lucky: I was helped by a few professionals for whom my mum cleaned. I was also awarded an assisted government place to attend an independent 6th Form. Without these, I don’t think I would have felt confident enough to apply to a Russell group university. Back in high school my mother paid for extra maths tutoring for me outside of school. But when (on the tutor’s advice) I told my head of maths that I’d like to do the higher paper to try to get an A grade (rather than the maximum C I could get by doing the lower paper) she told me that I could, but qualified it with: ‘you can always resit next year’. This stands out for me as a good example of the lowered expectations and constrained ambition that I felt during my compulsory education.

One of the most powerful aspects of the book for me was where Reay talks about how the working-classes find themselves having left one class (working) and yet not feeling like a true member of another (the ‘bolting on of middle classness’) (p.104). Reay suggests that social mobility for the working classes represents ‘a fragile balance between realising potential and maintaining a sense of authenticity’, resulting in individuals being uncomfortably ‘caught between two worlds’ (p.108). Lynsey Hanley also talks powerfully about this from her own experience in Respectable. This process of social mobility can be wounding, resulting in a ‘disconnect’ for individuals and a feeling of being ‘adrift’ from social and family ties. The political discourse of social mobility as an unquestionable good, Reay argues, doesn’t really get to grips with this aspect.

My own personal experience of social mobility is of a huge gulf between myself and my wider family and community that came about because I went to university and that will likely never be resolved. ‘Why would you want to go to University?’ they asked. The fact that I went to University and moved away underscored another aspect of this fracture highlighted by Reay: what social mobility says about those who are left behind. Reay rightly asks what the point is in striving for equality with more-privileged others if the process creates inequalities between you and the people you love’? (pp 114-5). In the epilogue she cites the powerful words of Bourdieu: ‘to be able to live in a world that is not mine I must try to understand both things: what it means to have an academic mind…and at the same time what was lost in acquiring it’ (pp 197-8).

Finally, a further critical aspect for me that Reay talks about is how as academics we can become ensnared in ‘dominant representations’ of the working classes and that it is important not to ‘romanticise’ the experience of working-classness (p.198). Instead, she highlights the diversity of ‘working-classness’. This helped me to make sense of my own class background. My experience of growing up working class was largely about being fearful and ashamed. Constant stress about having enough money to live on, of having utilities cut off and having to lie about this to friends to save face. My mum was shocked when I asked to have free school meals as she didn’t want me to look ‘outwardly poor’ to others. My parents didn’t claim Family Credit for largely the same reason (although this left us even poorer). My parents were not part of the politically enlightened, ‘radical’ working class that was Reay’s background, but were more the ‘aspirant’ working-class talked about in Jackson and Marsden’s classic work. However, their aspirations were really for me, rather than for themselves. For them, education was the gateway to a much better life for me than the one they experienced. My dad was a time-served joiner, but could only find work on building sites throughout his life. He wasn’t a member of a union (except when there was a closed shop) and, in common with his family and peers, he voted Conservative. My mum largely worked in shops and as a cleaner and waitress. Both struggled from one low-paying insecure job to another (my mum regularly had at least two jobs), with poor health as a result.

The ‘classedness’ of my education was largely a part of my life that, for good or ill, I didn’t really notice at the time: what Reay refers to as ‘the living out of class on both conscious and unconscious levels’ (p.155). Reay says she’s still upset that, for the majority of people that both she and Jackson and Marsden interviewed, their working-class backgrounds were something they wanted to forget (p.8). This resonated deeply with me. But it is critical not to forget. In Miseducation Reay strikes exactly the right chord, successfully managing to achieve her aim of ‘cutting across the grain’ of what she has become professionally (p.198) to be reflexive about her own experiences. Reay’s Miseducation is a timely exposė of how current government policies, the education ‘system’ but, critically, social values and attitudes to ‘inequality, welfare and difference’ (p.174) are still failing, and as a result limiting the potential of so many.

Dr Jo Ingold is a Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Public Policy and is a member of CERIC.

Miseducation by Diane Reay is published by Policy Press’ 21st Century Standpoints series, in association with the British Sociological Association