The UK’s sovereignty problem lies in the workplace, not Brusselsby Mat Lawrence / June 21, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: The future of trade unions
Many people in the UK suffer from a daily loss of control. However, this disempowerment does not come via the European Union, but in the workplace. This reflects the strange division of our economic lives: under the UK’s model of debt-fuelled capitalism, we are granted freedom and choice as consumers, yet hierarchy, inequality and order are imposed on us at work.
The appalling evidence of abuse at the Sports Direct warehouse in Derbyshire exposed recently exemplifies that division. Workers were subject to intense and intrusive disciplining systems, with staff punished for spending too long in the bathroom and even for falling ill. These Dickensian working conditions were made possible by marrying unequal economic power with the monitoring technologies of the 21st century. The “culture of fear” over missing work was such that one woman ended up giving birth in the toilets.
While extreme, the examples were symptomatic of problems in the wider economy. One-third of all employees are fearful at work in some way, while a majority of people lack a say over the decisions influencing their working life and are disengaged at work. Among EU countries, the UK ranks above only Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the involvement of employees in decision-making.
This is an economic as much as an ethical concern. As the IPPR has argued, sharp inequalities in terms of agency and voice help underpin the UK’s chronically poor productivity performance. However, it is also a political challenge. These inequalities are not natural or inevitable. How power, risk and reward are distributed in a workplace between participants—management, employees, shareholders, customers and other stakeholders—varies widely depending on the model of firm.
Consequently, the choice of what type of firm and workplace to promote is a political one. If progressives want to give people have greater power over their lives—see the success of Vote Leave’s “control” messaging—they should start by democratising economic power within the workplace. They could take three steps: strengthening employee voice, reforming and broadening corporate governance, and spreading ownership.
Strengthening employee representation is an obvious area for…