Working conditions and social dialogue — UK

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Published on: 02 April 2008

United Kingdom
Andrea Broughton

Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited or approved by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

This comparative report provides a general overview of the steps taken in the UK to implement the 2002 Directive on informing and consulting employees.

There is evidence from the UK that social dialogue between employer representatives and elected worker representatives plays a role in helping to shape working conditions. Analyses of the Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS) show that the existence of dialogue can have an impact on a range of areas, such as occupational health and safety, equal opportunities, flexible working and access to and provision of training. Qualitative and case study research also shows that dialogue at workplace level, including through partnership arrangements between employer and trade union representatives, can have an impact on a range of working conditions and on occupational health-related issues such as stress at work.

A. Mapping of existing research and administrative reports

1. Surveys

Present a summary of the survey(s), its findings and methodology, including any caveats about the research

Present, where relevant, the exact wording of the questions that address the relationship between working conditions and social dialogue

Is there a predominance of cases or more information available in certain sectors? Are any particular issues emerging? Has any monitoring or evaluation been carried out?

One of the most prominent surveys of working conditions in the UK is the Workplace Employment Relations Survey [], the most recent version of which relates to field work carried out in 2004. The four previous surveys in this series relate to 1980, 1984, 1990 and 1998. The Cross-Section survey comprised interviews with around 2,300 managers and almost 1,000 employee representatives and questionnaires completed by over 20,000 employees. This represents a response rate of 64%, 77% and 61%, respectively. In a separate Panel Survey, around 950 workplaces that took part in the previous survey (1998) were revisited to provide an accurate picture of how workplaces had changed in the period between the two surveys. The main fieldwork ran from February 2004 to April 2005 and was conducted by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).

The survey looked at a range of employee representative structures that engage in social dialogue and collective bargaining with management. These were principally:

  • recognised trade union presence at the workplace;
  • the presence of staff associations;
  • joint consultative committees; and
  • stand-alone non-union representatives.

According to the employee survey conducted by this research, 34% of all employees in workplaces with 10 or more employees were union members (trade union membership is higher in the public than the private sector (62% and 22%, respectively). Three quarters of workplaces with union members recognised one or more unions for the purposes of negotiating the pay and conditions of at least some their employees. The most commonly cited areas on which trade unions spend their time were pay, hours of work, holiday and pension entitlements, mentioned by 76% of representatives.

Joint consultative committees (consisting of representatives of management and workers and which meet to discuss a issues of mutual interest that are related to the workplace) were present in 14% of workplaces with 10 or more employees. A further 25% of workplaces did not have a workplace-level committee, but did have a consultative forum that operated at a higher level in the organisation. These committees met to discuss topics such as the organisation’s future, plans, work organisation, employment issues, production issues and financial issues. The latter two topics were found to be more likely to have been discussed if trade union representative sat on the committee.

Stand-alone non-union representatives were present in 5% of workplaces and were only rarely found where unions had their own on-site representatives.

In order to determine the extent of the quality of the social dialogue at the workplace, the survey asked managers and employee representatives to rate each other on three dimensions of trust: whether the other party could be relied on to live up to the commitments they had made; whether the other party was sincere in their attempts to understand each other’s point of view; and whether the other party could be trusted to act with honesty and integrity. Responses were given on a five-point scale from ‘strongly agree’ to 'strongly disagree’. The survey found that the proportion of workplaces in which both parties agreed that they could trust the other across each of the three dimensions was much higher in the case of management/non-union relationships (64%) than management/union relations (31%).

Joint regulation of terms and conditions

The survey asked managers whether they normally negotiated with, consulted, or informed union or non-union representatives over 12 terms and conditions of employment. The results are displayed in the table below. Overall, the recognition of a trade union plays a considerable role in determining the nature of joint regulation over various aspects of working conditions. One-half of workplaces recognising unions normally negotiated over hours and holidays, over one-third negotiated over pensions and over one-quarter negotiated over grievance and disciplinary procedures. In the absence of a recognised union, management only negotiated, consulted or informed employees on one of the 12 items listed, on average. In unionised workplaces, managers negotiated, consulted or informed employees on an average of nine items.

Joint regulation of terms and conditionsa,b
  % of workplaces
Issue Nothing Inform Consult Negotiate
Pay 70 (16) 6 (10) 5 (13) 18 (61)
Hours 71 (18) 5 (10) 8 (20) 16 (53)
Holidays 71 (19) 9 (17) 5 (13) 15 (52)
Pensions 73 (22) 11 (25) 6 (16) 10 (36)
Staff selection 78 (42) 10 (26) 9 (23) 3 (9)
Training 75 (36) 10 (24) 13 (31) 3 (9)
Grievance procedure 69 (15) 9 (20) 14 (36) 9 (28)
Disciplinary procedure 69 (15) 9 (21) 13 (35) 8 (29)
Staffing plans 75 (33) 11 (26) 12 (34) 3 (7)
Equal opportunities 72 (22) 10 (23) 14 (40) 5 (15)
Health and safety 69 (17) 9 (19) 17 (49) 5 (15)
Performance appraisal 75 (33) 9 (20) 12 (33) 4 (14)
Base: All workplaces with 10 or more employees. Figures are weighted and based on responses from at least 2,007 managers. Notes: a Managerial respondent was asked ‘whether management normally negotiates, consults, informs or does not involve unions’ on 12 items. Also asked with respect to non-union employee representatives. b Figures in parentheses relate to workplaces with recognised trades unions and are based on responses from at least 1,004 managers.

Source: Workplace Employment Relations Survey 2004; B. Kersley, et al, 2006. Inside the Workplace. London: Routledge.

Effect on equal opportunities

There is no section in the survey that directly refers to links between social dialogue and its effect on working conditions. However, some instances of a link can be found in various parts of the survey. For example, it found that 95% of workplaces with recognised trade unions had a formal written equal opportunities policy in place, compared with an average of 73% of all workplaces. Further, workplaces with a recognised trade union were more likely than those without a trade union to carry out monitoring and reviewing of recruitment, selection and promotion processes, in addition to the reviewing of relative pay rates in relation to gender, ethnicity, disability and age.

Effect on flexible working arrangements

Further, in the area of flexible working arrangements, the survey found that practices such as reduced working hours, the ability to change shift patterns, flexitime, job-sharing, homeworking, term-time working, compressed hours, annualised hours and zero hours contracts were most common in larger workplaces, in the public sector, and in workplaces where a union was recognised. However, it should be borne in mind that trade unions are more likely to be present in larger workplaces and in the public sector and no further statistical testing was carried out to control for this.

Similarly, the survey found that workplaces with a recognised union were more likely to have enhanced leave arrangements in place to support employees with caring responsibilities (in addition to statutory requirements).

Effect on work-life balance

In terms of work-life balance issues, managers in workplaces without recognised unions were more likely to believe that it was up to individual employees to balance their work and family responsibilities (61%) than in workplaces with recognised unions (56%). However, employees were less likely to report that manager were understanding of their responsibilities in workplaces where a union was recognised (55%) than where there were no recognised unions (61%).

Sectoral differences

In terms of sectors, the WERS 2004 survey found that collective bargaining was more common in the public sector than the private sector For example, on the issue of pay determination, collective bargaining was present in four-fifths of public sector workplaces and covered around four-fifths of public sector workers. By contrast, collective bargaining on pay covered 14% of workplaces and 26% of employees in the private sector. Collective bargaining on pay was more prevalent in the public administration and electricity, gas and water sectors, but was almost non-existent in the hotels and restaurants sector.

Debate and secondary literature

There has been some debate about the influence of dialogue between employers and employee representatives, reflected in a number of articles. For example, David Metcalf (2001) speaks of the “sword of justice” that trade unions offer employees. He cites figures from the 1998 Workplace Employment Relations Survey, claiming that if there were no unions, the gender pay gap would be 2.6% wider and the race pay gap 1.4% wider. He further states that union recognition is associated with a much greater likelihood of a workplace having some form of equal opportunity policy and family friendly policies. In addition, “women in unionised workplaces are much better off in terms of career opportunities, flexible work arrangements and general support for family responsibilities than their counterparts in non-union workplaces. Further, a union workplace is a fifth more likely to have an equal opportunities policy on gender than its non-union ‘twin’”. Metcalf also states that although trade unions tend to organise in workplaces where an accident is more likely to occur, their presence lowers the accident rate by a quarter, compared with non-union environments.

Another study (Bryson, A 2003. ‘Working with Dinosaurs? Union Effectiveness in Delivering for Employees’ looks at employee perceptions of the effectiveness of trade unions in securing improvements in terms and conditions. It notes the difficulties in measuring the benefits of a union presence at the workplace. He also points to the “union wage premium”, the result of unions being able to bargain on members’ behalf for wages that are above the market rate.

The link between the presence of a trade union and the provision of equal opportunities is explored in a discussion paper published by the Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics (Gray, H., Fernie, S. (2002). It's a family affair: The effect of union recognition and Human Resource Management on the provision of equal opportunities in the UK, Using data from the 1998 Workplace Employee Relations Survey, this paper found that, controlling for various factors, equal opportunities policies and their monitoring, together with ''softer'' family-friendly policies, are strongly associated with trade union recognition. It found that employees are least likely to have access to equal opportunities and family-friendly policies in workplaces which do not recognise a union or use HRM practices.

Effect on training provision

A research paper from the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change, University of Leeds analysing data from the WERS 2004 survey (Stuart, M. and Robinson, A. 2007. ‘Training, union recognition and collective bargaining’. looks at the potential effect of trade union presence on the provision of training in British workplaces. It found that that union recognition has a consistently positive effect not only on the extent to which employees are provided with training, but also on the amount of training they receive. It also shows that workplaces are more likely to offer higher levels of employee training (defined as 10 or more days of training per year) when they recognise trade unions, have some form of representative structure and where unions directly negotiate with management over training. Its broad conclusions included the following:

  • union learning representatives (ULRs) were present in 12.1% of establishments where a union representative structure existed. Higher levels of negotiation (13.1%) and consultation (61.4%) over training were reported in ULR-recognised workplaces than in those without ULRs;
  • workplaces that had union recognition and structures of trade union representation reported higher levels of training than those that did not. The extent to which some training had taken place for the largest occupational group (LOG) was 14% more likely in workplaces with union recognition and one or more trade union representatives;
  • the above finding was further supported when management responses were combined with those of employees. In union recognised workplaces, employees are 8.1% more likely to report receiving training;
  • ULRs are associated with higher levels of training. Where there is a ULR present in a recognised workplace, employees are 8% more likely to report having received 2-5 days training. Where a workplace has ULRs, recognition and a representative structure that includes employee representatives, employees are 14.9% more likely to report receiving training, and are 6.7% more likely to report receiving 10 or more days training; and
  • where unions are recognised and negotiate over training, employees are 23.9% more likely to report having received some training. There is also an association with higher levels of training, with employees 4.1% more likely to report receiving 10 or more days training.

The authors of the report state that this analysis of the WERS data has revealed positive findings in terms of positive associations between union recognition and enhanced provision of and access to training. They also note that further research could usefully explore the data by gender and occupational class and analyse any differences between public and private sector workplaces.

2. Qualitative research

Present a summary of the research, its findings and methodology, including any caveats about the research

Is there a predominance of cases or more information available in certain sectors? Are any particular issues emerging? Has any monitoring or evaluation been carried out?

The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) carries out a great deal of qualitative research work on health and safety issues at work. In one of its reports on stress management (Beacons of Excellence in Stress Prevention, it reviews organisations, mainly in the public sector, that have adopted successful approaches to stress management at work. In some cases, this has involved a process of dialogue involving trade unions. For example, it cites Stockton Borough Council as an organisation that has adopted a partnership approach to stress prevention and overall workplace health and well being. It has created an employee health group, made up of various advisors, including trade union representatives.

The regional power supplier London Electricity is cited by this HSE report as a good example of an organisation that has adopted a participative approach to ensuring that employees return to work after illness. For example, at the discretion of the employee, a meeting between employee, counsellor, line manager, HR representative, and union official where relevant, is set up to discuss changes needed in behaviour, workflow and workload, and other threat inducing factors. Thereafter, it is reported that the employee usually undertakes a phased return to work. The report found that these “round table” meetings can be highly effective in aiding the rehabilitation of employees with stress problems and preventing or minimising sickness absence, in addition to highlighting any shortfalls in management skills.

The HSE has also produced a range of case studies of organisations where workers or their representatives have been involved in health and safety management. For example, At BAE Systems Aerostructures [] the company has developed a close relationship with the trade union Amicus (now part of Unite), which both parties believe has created a safe working environment for employees that goes beyond the standards required by law. Des Browne MP, then Minister of State for Work, visited BAE Systems Aerostructures at Prestwick on 12 February 2004 in response to an invitation from the Amicus representatives. Steve Ryan of Amicus said, ‘This visit promotes the belief that, where trade union representatives are involved with health and safety in the workplace, accident and incident rates can be significantly reduced.’

It was noted at BAE Systems Aerostructures that partnership working in this way can significantly contribute to the process of managing change, by identifying, preventing and controlling any potential adverse health effects or risks in operating processes. The HSE’s case study states the company’s and the union’s belief that such an approach is only possible with open communication, open access to information and joined-up approaches to problem solving. The benefits at this organisation are held to be reflected in the way that unions and the company develop their partnerships at work, make decisions and deliver improvements. They state that a joint partnership approach to health and safety has resulted in the company providing a high level of training for safety representatives and, in return, the trade unions’ resource is embraced as a core method for carrying out tasks as diverse as:

  • assessment;
  • investigation;
  • auditing systems;
  • assessments;
  • and rationalisation of Personal Protective

Equipment (PPE);

  • assessment of vibration;
  • part of the onsite training.

3. Administrative reports

Do reports from Labour Inspectorate / Health and Safety Authorities exist where the absence of dialogue between the two sides of industry on OHS matters is mentioned? (present the findings briefly)

Is there predominance in a certain sector?

When so, mention the five most quoted sectors.

The role of Labour Inspectorate in an advice / information role to get the social dialogue going whether establishment-specific or not.

There does not appear to be any report that directly discusses the absence of dialogue between the two sides of industry on OHS matters. However, there are examples of case studies where organisations have adopted a participative approach to health and safety and have worked with trade union representatives (see section 2 for more details).

The HSE-commissioned report, Trends and context to rates of workplace injury ( research report 386, found that trade union members and members of a consultation committee exhibit significantly higher rates of workplace injury than those who are not (2.1% compared with 1.1% for non-members). However, the report notes that this is probably due to the fact that union membership is likely to be relatively concentrated in traditional heavy industries that are characterised by more hazardous occupations. Further, this report found that, after controlling for other factors, union members are 49% more likely than non-union members to report having had a reportable workplace injury. This may be partly due to the fact that employees in the most risky occupations may join unions as a means of insurance. The report notes that while occupation is the dominant influence upon an individual’s risk of

suffering a workplace injury, there may be other compositional changes, such as gender composition of employment, hours worked and part time working, unionisation, and job tenure, each of which may contribute to structural changes in the workforce which drives down the overall rate of accidents.

Is the gender aspect taken up in OHS, is it taken up in the OHS social dialogue, who puts it on the agenda and what is its outcome, if any?

This report also looks at the gender dimension, noting that accident rates for both male and female workers have fallen steadily since 1993, although in the case of female workers, they have fallen less dramatically and from a lower base. Factors such as both men and women working in increasingly safe environments are thought to contribute to this decrease.

Overall, the study found that males are approximately 9% more likely to have a reportable workplace injury compared to females and that almost all of the gender differential based upon comparisons of injury rates can be accounted for by observable other factors controlled for within the model used by the research.

B. Actual examples of social dialogue influencing working conditions

4. Examples of social dialogue

General case study reporting

Incomes Data Services (IDS) has published case study-based research that touches upon the role of social dialogue at workplace level. For example, the IDS HR Study on Harassment and bullying (826, July 2006) examples the experiences of six organisations operating in the UK. At Royal Mail Group, workplace-level trade unions were part of a steering group that met in late 2003 to develop a new bullying and harassment policy and procedure. Royal Mail Group had been suffering from high levels of sickness absence and had been subjected to an investigation by the Equal Opportunities Commission into the high number of sexual harassment complaints filed by the organisation’s female staff. As a result of the introduction of the new procedure, according to an internal employee satisfaction survey, 11% of employees said that they had experienced harassment in the preceding 12 months, compared with 16% before the new policy was put into place. The organisation had agreed to review the contents of the new procedure with trade unions every six months, but after two meetings, all parties felt that the policy was meeting its aims and it was agreed to move to an annual review.

Another IDS HR Study (845, May 2007) on Managing Stress looks at the management of stress, including the role of dialogue with employee representatives at workplace level. On the issue of involving trade unions, it states: “Where they are recognised, trade unions usually have an important role in developing and applying stress policies. Such involvement is important in fostering a feeling of ownership of the policy among employees.” At the local authority, Birmingham City Council, a stress management programme was launched in early 2004 under which the organisation made a commitment to consult with workplace-level trade unions on any action it proposes to take to prevent workplace stress. Trade unions were also fully involved in the dissemination of the programme among the Council’s staff. It is reported that the new programme has introduced greater consistency across the organisation, allowing individual units within the organisation to share best practice and benefit from council-wide initiatives, while retaining a degree of autonomy in how interventions take place.

The Involvement & Participation Association (IPA), a UK organisation specialising in assisting unionised and non-unionised organisations to develop effective information and consultation processes and workplace partnership, has a wide range of case studies on a variety of different topics available on its website ( though the initiative, set up in 2000 with support from the UK Department for Trade and Industry (now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) Partnership Fund.

Further, the organisation UKWON, which aims to accelerate and intensify the pace of workplace innovation across the UK and Europe, has a range of case studies available on its website (, detailing how organisations have used partnership to improve work organisation.

Individual case studies

The effect of “learning agreements” (agreements concluded at workplace level between trade union representatives and employers, aiming to increase participation in learning and skills development activities) is explored in a unionlearn publication of research carried out by Leeds Business School (Wallis, E. and Stuart, M. 2007. ‘A Collective Learning Culture. A qualitative study of workplace learning agreements’ The research presents an initial empirical assessment of the significance of learning agreements. It draws upon six case studies of organisations where learning agreements have been concluded, in order to explore: their nature and scope; how they connect with the broader industrial relations environment; and whether they have influenced the development of organisational learning cultures and performance outcomes. Overall, this research suggests that the adoption of a partnership-based approach to learning is more important for the advancement of the learning agenda at the workplace than the conclusion of a formal learning agreement. However, it finds that such agreements are nevertheless able to contribute to the sustainability of learning partnerships when they result in the establishment of effective workplace learning committees, and embed trade union involvement in the development of the learning agenda. The findings of this research also indicate that the best outcomes in terms of the trajectory of employee participation in learning and the development of workplace learning cultures are associated with learning partnerships in which there is a relatively even balance of power between employers and unions.

Learning agreement at ‘TurbCo’

All case studies in this research were anonymised, in accordance with standard practice when organisations agree to participate in research on the condition that they will not be identified by name. One study examined the learning agreement at ‘TurbCo’, which is described as one of the world’s largest conglomerate companies, the core interests of which lie in the ICT, automation and control, energy, transport, medical and electrical engineering sectors. In the UK, this company employs around 21,000 people. The research examined TurbCo operations at its ‘Eastown’ site, which employs 2,200 staff, and which manufactures industrial gas turbines for a range of customers in the oil and gas production industries. It is the larges private sector employer in the town. One of the challenges facing the company is the recruitment of skilled labour; although it has forged links with local schools and further and higher education institutes, the workforce is aging and apprenticeship recruitment does not cover exits. Further, there are skills gaps within the existing workforce.

The learning agreement at TurbCo was signed by representatives of the company management and two trade unions in August 2003. It is a framework document that commits management and the unions at the Eastown plant to work in partnership in order to promote a culture of learning within the workplace and to widen participation in learning activities. It also provides for the establishment of a joint union/employer Learning Partnership Committee, which has a broad remit, including identifying and prioritising the learning needs of employees, producing, implementing and monitoring learning plans for individual learners, and monitoring learning provision and contracts with outside training providers.

Although industrial relations were characterised as good at TurbCo before the development of this learning agreement, the case study concludes that the agreement has helped to increase participation in learning activities at this workplace, and opened up learning to a broader section of the workforce. There has therefore been a “significant” upskilling of the workforce at this site – one fifth of the total workforce has undertaken learning activities within the Union Learning Centre provided for by the agreement. Nevertheless, the company’s management is reluctant to wholly attribute performance improvements to the learning initiative, as a number of other initiatives have at the same time been put into place that affect the organisation and the technological base of the plant.

The case study concludes that the main benefits to the company have been achieved through the development of a learning culture at this workplace and by way of positive publicity and the projection of a more favourable corporate image within the local community. For the unions involved, the benefits have included increased employability of their members. Although the performance of the plant has improved since the conclusion of the agreement, it is unclear to what extent the performance improvements can be attributed to the increased skills of the workforce at this plant. The impossibility of attributing hard outcomes solely to partnership-based initiatives was a common finding in all of the case studies outlined in this research.

Partnership agreement at HP Bulmer

There are many case studies detailing the implementation and effect of partnership working in the UK. The UKWON database contains a range of interesting studies, including the following one at the cider producer HP Bulmer. Headquartered in Hereford, in the west of England and employing some 1,000 staff in the UK, the company has recognised trade unions since the 1970s. A formal partnership agreement between the company and trade union representatives was signed in 1994, under which an Employee Council and a Joint Working Party (JWP) on employee relations operate. The Council meets regularly and discusses matters connected with company policy and decisions that affect employees’ future. The JWP deals with a range of issues, including pay, shift work, holiday working, employment security, job flexibility, long-term sickness absence, stress management, grading, and performance-related pay. A Learning Centre also operates under the partnership arrangement, aiming to provide training and skills development to employees.

One of the barriers to successful partnership working can be reluctance on the part of trade unions. Here, however, the trade union view of these partnership arrangements, as set out in this case study, is that they are working well. A number of specific policies have been adopted within the partnership framework, including an alcoholism and drugs policy, a retirement benefits policy, a code of practice on job losses and a stress policy. An employee attitude survey, in which company employees are asked by means of a questionnaire about their views on a range of workplace-related subjects, revealed that there was a general positive attitude towards the Employee Council. Employees welcomed the overall involvement process, and highlighted a number of issues, including a perception of widespread trust in colleagues, understanding of goals and objectives, a willingness to be able to express points of view more freely, and an emphasis on finding a joint solution to problems rather than being told how to do things. Improvements as a result of partnership working, as perceived by employees, include the following: an improvement in morale; an increase in commitment; a more balanced view on the part of the company, which realises that it has commitments to its workforce and to its shareholders; and the opportunity of all employees to discuss issues with senior management and know that they will be listened to.

Stress reduction at London Underground

This case study is reported in full by Incomes Data Services (‘London Underground tackles stress”. Employee Health and Wellbeing, IDS HR Study 823, June 2006, pp.20-23) and focuses on London Underground (LU), which operates the tube transport system in the UK’s capital. LU, controlled by Transport for London, employs over 12,500 staff and stress-related absence is common among its employees, being the primary cause of absence. The company has introduced a range of measures over the past three years, in consultation with trade unions, that have had a “significant positive impact” on absence due to stress. The largest representative trade union at London Underground are the Rail, Maritime and Transport trade union (RMT). LU’s stress management initiatives were undertaken within the framework of its five-year health plan, drawn up in 2004. LU used an external stress consultant to analyse the stress problem, who worked with the company to develop interventions to reduce stress at organisational, team and individual levels. A risk assessment, including potential stress risk factors, was carried out at organisational level, using the six categories from the UK Health and Safety Executive’s stress management standards (role, change, demands, control, support and relationships). Guidance on how to help employees suffering from stress was offered to managers at team level, and a range of interventions was offered to individual employees, such as a stress reduction programme, an employee guide on managing stress, and one-to-one counselling for those that need it.

Results from these interventions include a decrease in overall sickness absence of almost 80% in the three months following the stress reduction programme, falling to around 30% after a year. After attending the stress reduction programme, 90% of attendees said that they felt they related to other better, 60% reported improved sleeping patterns, 90% reported an improved diet and 80% reported an increase in their levels of exercise. Overall, it was reported that there was a 5% reduction in stress-related sickness absence in the year following the introduction of the company’s stress plan. LU’s occupational health team is planning to set up a new steering group for the stress plan, with active involvement from trade union health and safety representatives.

5. Social partner views

Please ask the social partners in your country for their general views on the type, nature and quality of the social dialogue in your country in terms of its influence on working conditions. This could include, for example, their assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the social dialogue, as it is organised in your country, as a tool for improving working conditions. Please report who you have contacted and in what form. The level of organisation (confederation, federation) that is relevant may differ between countries, although it is most likely that the organisation to be contacted will be a peak organisation.

The social partners contacted for this section were:

  • the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the national-level employers’ organisation. Katja Hall, Head of Employment and Employee Relations, was contacted. She gave information for this questionnaire.
  • the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which is the national trade union confederation in the UK. Owen Tudor, Head of the TUC European Union and International Relations Department, was contacted by email, who forwarded the query on to Peter Coldrick, who gathered information from colleagues in the TUC;

CBI views

The CBI believes that there are many examples of successful social dialogue in the UK. One area highlighted as particularly successful by the CBI was the establishment of the Low Pay Commission (LPC). The LPC is an independent statutory non departmental public body set up under the UK’s National Minimum Wage Act 1998 to advise the Government about the National Minimum Wage. Its permanent status was confirmed by the Government in 2001 and it was given a Terms of Reference for a programme of longer-term research. The LPC undertakes the following activities:

  • Research and consultation;
  • Commissioning of research projects;
  • Analysing relevant data and actively encouraging the Office of National Statistics to establish better estimates of the incidence of low pay;
  • Carrying out surveys of firms in low-paying sectors;
  • Consultation with employers, workers and their representatives;
  • Taking written and oral evidence from a wide range of organisations; and
  • Fact-finding visits throughout the UK to meet employers, employees and representative organisations.

There are nine members of the LPC, drawn from a range of employee, employer and academic backgrounds. All the Commissioners serve in an individual capacity and not as representatives of the organisations for which they work.

Other examples of successful social dialogue highlighted by the CBI include:

  • the right for individual employees to request flexible working, under the Employment Rights Act 1996. Accordingly, employees may request the right to work flexibly in order to care for a child under the age of 6 and a disabled child under the age of 18.This flexible working includes part-time work, job-sharing, working from home, term-time working and any other flexible hours which enable employees to combine looking after children or adults in need of care with work. Employers must consider this request seriously and give reasons for any refusal. Requests can only be refused by employers on a number of specific grounds. As a consequence, there has been considerable dialogue at workplace level on the issue of flexible working in the UK.
  • the establishment of the Women and Work Commission, set up by the UK government to examine the problem of the gender pay gap, and other issues affecting women's employment. The Commission comprises members from employer and employee representatives.

The CBI has issued the following view of the operation of social dialogue in the UK: ‘Our view is that social partnership is working very well in the UK. We have a voluntary approach and often involve not only the social partners themselves but also other experts, such as academics. CBI members believe that social partnership should be considered on a issue by issue basis; not all issues are appropriate for social partnership’.

TUC views

The TUC has highlighted learning, skills development and training as areas in which social dialogue can have a significant influence. For example, the TUC publication ‘The Learning Curve’ ( looks at how partnership at the workplace between employers and trade union representatives boosts training and skills. In the foreword to the publication, Brendan Barber, TUC General Secretary, states that the case studies in the publication ‘demonstrate how unions can add value in a range of ways, from the establishment of learning centres and the shaping of apprenticeship programmes to the promotion of a learning culture in the workplace’. It also states that, according to the UK Labour Force Survey 2003, union members receive more training than non-union members. A total of 39% of workers who were union members had been involved in some kind of training over a sample three-month period, compared with 26% of non-union members. The publication also states that the volume of training on offer to employees also increases if training is a subject for negotiation between the employer and trade union representatives, rather than a subject for consultation: almost 40% of workplaces where training is a subject for negotiation organise an average of five or more training days a year. This compares with fewer than 25% of workplaces where training is a subject for consultation only. (and therefore not engaging in negotiation or dialogue on training) offering five or more training day as year One of the conclusions of this publication, which details three workplace case studies, is that they show how ‘learning agreements between management and unions can add significant value to an organisation by establishing workplace learning centres, paid time off to learn and support for union learning representatives’.

Joint initiatives

There are a range of joint initiatives underway in the area of training and skills development. The TUC and the CBI are currently working with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) on a guide to workplace dialogue over training, with the aim of developing best practice. This is taking place in the context of the government’s commitment to look at the possible inclusion of skills as a topic of bargaining in the UK’s statutory recognition procedure. Case studies are currently being identified for this project. The parties aim to publish the guidance in autumn 2007. The TUC notes that: ‘This project is important because an effective training and skills strategy is central to lasting business success and workforce development. An effective strategy rarely works in practice without fully engaging the workforce and its representatives in its design and delivery’. More information about the project is available at:

Further, the social partners in the UK have worked together to successfully implement EU social partner agreements on:

  • stress (by means of a guide document,; and
  • telework, which was implemented by means of a code of conduct (

Further, the UK social partners are currently working on the implementation in the UK of the EU framework agreement on violence at work, of April 2007 ( news/2007/apr/harassment_violence_at_work_en.pdf).

In addition, the CBI and the TUC have issued joint statements on a number of issues, including: the two-tier workforce, managed migration to the UK (, race equality and basic skills.

Additional references

Bryson, A. (2002) The Size of the Union Wage Premium in Britain’s Private Sector, PSI Discussion Paper No. 9.

Metcalf, D Turning the tide. Can trade unions in Britain reverse 20 years of membership decline? CentrePiece, Spring 2001.

Andrea Broughton, Institute for Employment Studies

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