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Will employment relations get back its mojo?

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  • Picture of Stuart Morgan FRSA
    Stuart Morgan FRSA
  • Picture of Deborah Rees FRSA
    Deborah Rees FRSA
  • Future of Work
  • Employment

Deborah Rees and Stuart Morgan, FRSAs, explore the current lack of employment relations experience in the human resources community, and the impact in this time of looser fit employment and multinational companies

In 2009 Keith Sisson of the Industrial Relations Unit at the Warwick Business School, Warwick University suggested that: “Perhaps not surprisingly, a reduction in the number of strikes, along with decline in trade union membership and collective bargaining coverage, has led to the view that employment relations (practice and study) no longer matters”.

In 2019 Andy Cook reported in Personnel Today that employment relations did not make the agenda at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Festival of Work that year. And while the principles of good employment relations were threaded through this year’s festival, specific content on employment relations was not explicit or sufficient. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the inclusion of specific practical content on employment relations strategies for the future would have been a valuable addition.

In the current marketplace, it is difficult to find quality employment relations qualifications programmes at the postgraduate level or training that is not bolted on to some other more general human resource (HR) programme. Employment relations as a distinctive specialism seems to have all but disappeared and this is deeply worrying. In HR Magazine, Rachel Sharp (2019) stated: “HR itself doesn’t see IR [industrial relations] as attractive nowadays to work in, and IR is something that is very experience-based – you can’t learn it from a book….So we get a perfect storm of some HR people not seeing it as something they want to do, an ever-diminishing talent pool of HR professionals skilled in IR, and so an increase in IR issues”.

The historical context

It is worth remembering the time when industrial relations was a highly-prized skill set within the profession of HR. Indeed, we reflect on the fact that the CIPD itself was founded on facilitating and improvement in the welfare of the working classes and industrial relations. 

In order to appreciate the significance of employee relations it is important to consider the historical timeline of this discipline. As the authors are ethnically of Welsh extraction let’s review the situation of Wales as it was 250 ago. Traditionally, the Welsh valleys were feudal pastures. With the discovery of large reserves of iron and coal, these valleys were quickly transformed and became one of the most heavily industrialised and polluted places in the world. Swansea was known as ‘Copperopolis’, and almost 90% of the world’s copper was smelted and rolled in the city’s surrounding valley. The towns in the valleys of south Wales grew fast.

At one time Merthyr Tydfil was the largest town in Wales and the capital of the country. Iron masters like Lord Bute had a tight grip on the towns. These industrialists were entrepreneurs of not equal standing and the conditions of work were generally appalling, and the use of child labour was widespread. There was no universal democracy, and only landowning men had the power to vote.

On 3 November 1839, 5,000 armed workers marched down Newport, which was the centre of Welsh power at the time. These men believed that the political system had failed them, and they wanted the right to vote’; 22 were shot dead in a callous act. 

Evidence coming from the National Archives (2020) indicates that it was not only the industrial workers of Wales where riots were taking place. “The Rebecca riots took place in the rural parts of west Wales, including Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire, and Carmarthenshire, in 1839-1843. They were a series of protests made by tenant farmers against the payment of tolls (fees) charged to use the roads. Turnpike Trusts, or groups of businessmen, owned most of the main roads. These men fixed the charges and decided how many tollgates (turnpikes) could be built.”

Indeed, the Fountain public house in Pontarddulais in the city and county of Swansea is the birthplace of the Rebecca riots. The Chartists gave their lives to vote (Sheen, 2015).  Events of these times were a catalyst for widespread social reform and the introduction of key legislation over the next decades.

The Representation of the People Act (1832) and the Equal Pay Act (1970) followed by the Industrial Relations Act of 1971 brought about monumental changes to the working conditions of people throughout the UK. The Trade Union Act, 2016, and the Equality Act 2020 are the latest pieces of legislation in a long line of reformist acts.

During the 1960’s the employment relationship was regulated by collective bargaining under a labour government led by Harold Wilson (2019): “…Prime Minister Harold Wilson enacted social reforms in education, health, housing, gender equality, price controls, pensions, provisions for disabled people and child poverty”.

Throughout the 1960’s gender inequality was at the fore of collective bargaining, at both local and national level. In particular, many women working in factories in the early post war era were being paid significantly less than their male counterparts. One factory strike over equal pay at the Ford Motor Plant in Dagenham resulted in 187 women going on strike (TUC, 2017).  The 2010 film “Made in Dagenham” dramatised the 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham car plant, where female workers walked out in protest and which acted as a catalyst for legislative reform in the form of the Equal Pay Act (1970).

By the end of the 1960’s, ‘voluntarism’ had broken down and government intervention was no longer a basic framework. Government intervention became far more involved. The 1969 Donovan Report recommended national structures for collective bargaining (Turner, 1969). With the inception of ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), the late 1960’s and 1970’s epitomised the rise of pluralism; the rise in collective voice, and employment matters being dealt with on a collective basis. Pluralism was adopted with the aim of minimising industrial conflict.  

During the late 1970’s the changes that Margaret Thatcher’s government made gave rise to profound industrial relations conflicts. It sought to modify the way in which employees’ actions could influence or frustrate the direction that employers pursued. Successive Conservative governments sought to de-regulate the labour market, to privatise nationalised utilities and services, and to weaken the trade unions. The culmination government efforts precipitated the great miners’ strike of 1984 (Bronards, 2013). 

The 1980’s placed a focus on individual rights. As Darren Newman argued in Personnel Today in 2013: “One important legacy of the changes made in the 1980s has been the shift in the focus from trade unions and industrial action to individual rights. In 1979, if you were sacked by your employer you could go to the union and, if it backed you, the workplace could be brought to an immediate standstill until you were reinstated. Nowadays, battles over the treatment of individuals are fought in the employment tribunal rather than on a picket line”.

The 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Study reported that trade unions and managers now spend the majority of their time dealing with individual disputes, whereas thirty years ago the majority of their time was taken up with collective disputes. Statistics from the employment tribunals support this. 

The future

This individualistic perception of employment rights has mushroomed in the decades that followed. 

The role of the human resource professional is undoubtedly to address grievances and inequality as early as possible and to be the conduit for faster resolution. However, statistics published by the Employment Tribunal suggest there are fissures in professional practices. Elevating employment relations within the human resource profession could be the way to realise a future world of more industrious and less tempestuous workplaces.

Technology is key if the trade unions hope to engage the younger generations and capitalise on the recent phenomenon of virtual community spirit. Cloud working and home working will increase, and mobile working will become commonplace. We have already seen a move towards more ‘self-service’ since the start of the pandemic in 2020, for example ordering via a smartphone in pubs and restaurants and, from this month, students will be able to self-order within university cafeterias that have reopened.  

Artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, augmented reality, machine learning, blockchain encryption and more are all coming our way. The younger tech savvy generations clearly will expect to engage with the trade unions via virtual real-time media that they can relate to. Pulse surveys, bespoke social media platforms, mobile data sharing and sophisticated data analytics are all tools now at the trade unions disposal.

The government (via scholarships) and appropriate professional bodies and educational institutes should consider embedding employment relations as a key element of the managerial profession. This could be done by acting on findings from the lobbyists and dedicating resources and expertise to this field in order for UK managers and leaders to excel in their people management skills, innovate and drive forward productivity. This view is shared by a number of organisations and thought leaders.

The problems that face businesses and organisations require collaborative and innovative solutions. Collaborative innovation is becoming a necessary aim not a luxury. In order to achieve that aim human resource practitioners cannot remain distanced from employment relations; it is after all the founding driver of the human resource profession.

Deborah Rees and Stuart Morgan are both lecturers at Swansea Business School.

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