Unions refute threat from demise of the traditional job

In the 1980s and 1990s, UK trade unions seemed under threat from increasing labour market "flexibility" as service sector jobs replaced manufacturing employment and union membership fell. However, a report from the Trades Union Congress, published in June 2000, denies this, using official statistics to demonstrate the continued dominance of conventional employment patterns.

A popular view has emerged that the UK is experiencing the demise of the "conventional job" based on full-time, open-ended employment. A recent Department of Trade and Industry discussion paper, (Work and parents: competitiveness and choice, September 2000) notes that "the concept of a 'standard' job – with permanent employee status on a full-time, nine-to-five, Monday to Friday basis, is generally less typical in the UK than the rest of Europe." This is seen as a product of the growth of part-time and temporary employment, the end of the "job for life", and the opportunities provided by new technology for teleworking from home.

The fragmentation and individualisation of employment raises important concerns for trade unions, based traditionally around long-term employment relations and collective workplace organisation. However a report on The future of work, published in June 2000 by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), suggests that the growth of the "flexible workforce" is overstated. Using statistics from the Labour Force Survey over the years 1984 to 1999, supported by other data sources such as the New Earnings Survey and the 1998 Workplace Employee Relations Survey (WERS) (UK9811159F), it finds that the pace of change has slowed and that the "traditional job" continues to dominate.

Fifteen years of flexibility?

The TUC report cautions against the view that shifts in employment have been dramatic between 1984 and 1999, or that flexible pay, working time or work arrangements are now the norm. The evidence it presents includes the following:

  • the share of "permanent" jobs fell by only around 1% over the period, and seven in 10 net jobs created were "permanent" employee jobs. Job longevity also changed "remarkably little", especially when taking account of economic growth and recession;
  • the proportion of self-employed remained the same, at around 12% of the labour force, below the EU 15 average figure (for 1998) of 15%. Self-employment grew significantly in the 1980s but has since been in retreat. By 1999, there were 400,000 fewer people in self-employment than in the peak year of 1990;
  • temporary work accounted for just under 5% of employment in 1984 and 6% in 1999. The EU 15 average figure (1998) is 13%. The number of temporary workers has been falling since 1997;
  • only 1% of employees telework (working from home using a computer or telephone) as their main occupation, and a total of 5% had done any telework in the course of 1999;
  • part-time working continued to grow, though at a slower pace and in the same sectors. According to the European Labour Force Survey, the UK had the lowest growth in part-time work in the EU since 1992, at 1.3%. Students accounted for much of the increase;
  • women represented 45% of the workforce in 1999, compared with 41% in 1984. The share of women working full time stayed the same, at 56%. Traditional barriers remain largely intact, with women concentrated in the service sector and in jobs such as clerical and secretarial, sales and personal services. There has also been little sign of an overall improvement in the relative labour market position of ethnic minority workers;
  • the apparent growth in small and medium-sized enterprises (SME s) in the 1980s was fuelled by individual self-employment. In the 1990s, the employment share among large firms "clearly grew", while the employment share of SMEs with employees (one to 249) changed very little. The EU 15 average share of employment by SMEs is 66%, but stands at only 59% in the UK (1996);
  • wage inequality grew over the period, but pay flexibility, or non-standard pay, did not. The extent of variable pay such as profit-related pay or performance-related bonuses, commissions or other incentive pay has changed little over 20 years. Although nearly half of workplaces with 25 or more employees had a scheme, profit-related pay was received by only 8% of employees in 1999;
  • long working hours and unsociable hours have been long-standing features of the UK labour market, reflecting high levels of paid and unpaid overtime.
  • the Japan ese-style team-working model was reported by only 3% of workplaces in the 1998 Workplace Employee Relations Survey; and
  • in 1999, more than four in five employees had no flexible work arrangements, defined as flexible working hours, term-time working, annualised hours, "zero hours" contracts, job sharing, a four-and-a-half day week, or a nine-day fortnight. This also applied to 70% of women with dependent children. The WERS data also showed that access to most flexible working arrangements was available only to a minority of employees, especially in the private sector (see table below). Around two in five women workers and nearly three in five men had no access to flexible working practices, defined as working from home, job sharing, parental leave or flexi-time. Furthermore, nearly a quarter of management respondents said that in the past year no employees had taken up any entitlements to homeworking or reduced working time, even where they were available. Those able to use such arrangements tended to be higher skilled employees in larger organisations.
Availability of flexible working arrangements to employees, %
Working arrangement Private sector Public sector All employees
. Male Female Male Female .
Flexi-time 24 36 37 39 32
Parental leave 21 30 35 33 28
Job sharing scheme 6 15 23 34 16
Working at or from home 10 6 13 9 9

Source: Workplace Employee Relations Survey 1998. Base: all employees in workplaces with 25 or more employees.

Change and challenges

The TUC report acknowledges that three major changes did occur over the 1980s and 1990s. Each presents serious challenges for trade unions. First, employment expanded by about 4.5 million in services between 1984 and 1999, mostly in distribution, business services and health and education, while manufacturing employment continued to decline. However, the TUC points out that in 1999 nearly two-thirds of the workforce remained in "old economy" jobs, and nearly 10 million people were manual workers. In fact, in the 1990s, the occupational distribution of the workforce stayed fairly stable. The proportion of the workforce in traditional service sector jobs (clerical, personal and protective, sales, manual) remained the same at around 42%. Employment in craft and related trades and as machine operatives declined from 25% to 21%, while higher-skilled white-collar jobs grew from 32% to 37%.

The second challenge came from the demonstrable decline of collective bargaining, particularly in the private sector (UK0001251F). In most UK workplaces, pay is now set unilaterally by management. While not denying the threat that this poses for trade unions, however, the report is again more optimistic than many commentators, suggesting that the importance of collective bargaining has been understated. Collective bargaining remains influential in terms of setting a wider "going rate" even where negotiation does not directly occur. Only 2% of workplaces set pay through individual negotiations.

Third, job insecurity has spread into non-manual jobs. Workers generally perceive more insecurity because of work intensification and because the cost of losing a job, in terms of pension rights and job status, has increased. As the TUC report observes, "stability is not the same as security". However it also concludes on an upbeat note that, with continued low unemployment, "the hire and fire labour market becomes more costly for employers to operate. The relative bargaining power of employees will increase. Full employment may change the rules of the game at least as much as government legislation or global economic forces."


The TUC report recommends caution in interpreting changes in the structure of employment over the past 15 years: "in practice the vast majority of people work within standard employment arrangements." It also predicts a great deal of continuity rather than change in the future. This reflects a greater mood of confidence that unions are beginning to recover from their nadir in the 1980s. In May 2000, the annual report of the Certification Office for Trade Unions and Employers' Associations showed the first increase in trade union membership in 20 years, to 6.7 million members. New recruitment campaigns have been launched aimed at temporary and part-time workers on the back of recent employment legislation (UK0005175F). The national minimum wage (UK0004170F) and working time Regulations (UK9810154F) have also provided a focus for trade union campaigns. In addition, trade unions are also beginning to come to terms with a new rights for employees to trade union representation and recognition (UK0007183F).

Unions are therefore looking to boost their appeal to traditionally less well-organised sections of the workforce, particularly those in "atypical" employment, whilst asserting that the threat to their "core" constituencies in "traditional" jobs has been overstated. In any case the issues of concern for employees often remain the same, from long working hours to job insecurity, from low pay to workplace bullying and discrimination. Using the new legislation as a platform to reach out both to new audiences and their traditional heartlands will be a key union strategy in the coming few years. (J Arrowsmith, IRRU)

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