Workplace survey indicates mixed impact of legislation on employer practice

Findings from the latest comprehensive survey of workplace employment relations, published in July 2006, reveal the impact of several legislative measures introduced by the government since its election in 1997. Relevant changes in legislation covered areas such as trade union recognition, equal opportunities, work–life balance, and employee information and consultation. There is mixed evidence on the extent to which employers’ practices have changed as a result.

The report Inside the Workplace: Findings from the 2004 Workplace Employment Relations Survey, published in July 2006, examines a wide range of issues in this field and follows on from the previous survey in 1998. As such, it offers the ‘definitive diagnosis of the state of employment relations in Britain in 2004 and charts changes over the period of the Labour government since 1997’.

The 2004 Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS 2004, UK0511SR01), covers workplaces employing five or more employees across Great Britain. However, in order to compare findings with the previous survey, the report focuses on those employing 10 staff or more. These account for 21% of the total number of workplaces and 83% of all employees. As well as the core survey of managers responsible for employment relations matters, WERS 2004 contains linked surveys of employee representatives and individual employees, and a panel survey of workplaces from the 1998 study. This combination of data sources, together with high response rates, provides the basis for an authoritative portrait of Britain’s employment relations landscape.

This article addresses four areas of employment practice that have been subject to legislative intervention since the 1998 survey, which was undertaken shortly after the election of the Labour government in 1997. These areas include: trade union recognition, equal opportunities, work–life balance, and employee information and consultation.

Trade union recognition

WERS 2004 reports a change in the pattern of trade union recognition, against the background of the introduction of the 1999 Employment Relations Act’s statutory trade union recognition procedure (UK0007183F). While not widely invoked, this has, until the past year, prompted noticeable growth in voluntary union recognition agreements (UK0605039I).

The proportion of workplaces recognising trade unions for bargaining over pay and conditions declined from 33% in 1998 to 27% in 2004. However, this decline was almost entirely accounted for by smaller workplaces (with 10–24 employees) in the private sector. Union recognition rates in larger workplaces (employing 25 or more staff) in the private sector and across the public sector remained stable. This marks a break with the general decline in union recognition charted by earlier surveys from 1984 to 1998.

Analysis of the 1998–2004 panel survey found that, among larger private sector workplaces (employing 25 people or more), cases of new union recognition comfortably outweighed those of de-recognition over the period. This also represents a break with the findings from the 1990–1998 panel study, when de-recognition cases exceeded those involving new recognition.

WERS 2004 confirms that collective bargaining remains largely confined to the issues of pay, working hours and holidays – a practice reflected in the statutory recognition procedure’s requirements on the substantive agenda for collective negotiations. The procedure also specified that employers should consult unions on training matters. However, there is little evidence of this legislative prompt having much effect: training is no more likely to be the subject of consultation with unions than other staff development issues, such as performance appraisal.

Equal opportunities

Anti-discrimination legislation adopted in December 2003 introduced the new statutory grounds of religion and sexual orientation (UK0312101N); in October 2006, the UK’s age discrimination legislation comes into force (UK0603029I). Almost three quarters of workplaces (73%, accounting for 88% of employees) have a formal equal opportunities policy, up from 64% in 1998. The 1998–2004 panel survey indicates a relatively higher rate of increase in the private sector; as a result, the previous gap between public and private sectors has closed somewhat. The proportion of formal policies covering religion, sexual orientation and age all rose between 1998 and 2004, from 72% to 82%, 56% to 70% and 61% to 68% respectively.

However, monitoring the implementation of policies on gender, ethnicity, disability and age – as recommended by the UK’s three Equality Commissions in their codes of practice – occurs in only a minority of workplaces. Where such monitoring does take place, it is more likely to focus on recruitment and selection of workers and is less likely to address promotion and pay, as the government has rejected calls for employers to undertake mandatory equal pay audits.

Work–life balance

The impact of legislation in prompting changes in employment practice is evident in a series of measures aimed at fostering a shift in employees’ work–life balance. The 2002 Employment Act provided parents with children under the age of six years the right to request flexible working arrangements (UK0304104F). Current legislative proposals plan to extend this right to a wider range of employees with caring responsibilities (UK0511102F). WERS 2004 reveals significant increases in the availability of a range of flexible working arrangements since 1998, including flexi-time, term-time only working, homeworking, job-sharing and annualised hours. However, it also shows that a relatively high proportion of employees did not know whether particular practices were available to them.

The Employment Act 2002 and the earlier Employment Relations Act 1999 introduced and/or enhanced the following provisions: maternity leave and maternity pay; paternity leave (initially unpaid, but now paid); and emergency paid leave to care for dependents. WERS 2004 finds substantial evidence of extra-statutory provision on maternity leave: for example, in 51% of private and 84% of public sector workplaces, at least some portion of maternity leave is on full pay; no comparable data are available for 1998. The survey also finds noticeable increases in the availability of paid paternity leave and emergency paid leave since 1998, although for the latter more than three times as many employees reported that they took annual leave when such emergencies arose as those who took special paid leave. In this regard also, the gap between the public and private sectors evident in 1998 had partially closed by 2004.

Employee information and consultation

Implementation of the UK’s Information and Consultation of Employees (ICE) Regulations, in April 2005, occurred just after the completion of the survey fieldwork (UK0502103N). Although compliance with the regulations can be achieved through direct forms of employee communication and involvement, an important benchmark for their potential impact is the incidence of joint consultative committees (JCCs).

In 2004, just 14% of workplaces reported a site-specific JCC, while a further 25% were covered by a consultative committee at a higher level of the organisation. Both figures represent a decline since 1998, when they were 20% and 27% respectively. The decline in site-specific JCCs was concentrated among smaller workplaces. The proportion of employees covered by any form of consultative arrangement also declined, from 46% to 42%.

Countering the decline in JCC structures is an increase in the incidence of some forms of direct communication since 1998, including team briefings, workforce meetings, use of the management chain to cascade information down and circulation of newsletters.

The topics discussed by JCCs indicate that practice was in many cases already consistent with the ICE Regulations’ requirements. A clear majority of JCCs addressed employment issues (78%), work organisation (81%) and future plans (81%); slightly fewer addressed financial issues (65%). However, the extent to which the intentions of the regulations are being fulfilled in the absence of JCC structures through direct forms of employee communication would seem open to question. Although the proportion of managers who reported that they regularly provided employees with information about staffing increased between 1998 and 2004, from 61% to 64%, it declined for information about the workplace’s financial position and its investment plans – from 62% to 55% and from 50% to 41%, respectively.

An important part of the government’s case for the ICE Regulations was the contribution of effective employee information and consultation towards enabling workplaces to embrace so-called high performance work practices. In this regard, WERS 2004 suggests that much remains to be done. The adoption of practices that are central to the high performance paradigm barely changed since 1998. Teamworking was reported in 72% of workplaces in 2004, compared to 74% in 1998; multiskilling was noted in 66% of workplaces compared to 69% six years earlier; and problem-solving groups were found in 21% of workplaces compared to 15% in 1998.

The ending of the UK’s ‘opt-out’ from the EU’s Agreement on Social Policy prompted the Transnational Information and Consultation Employees (TICE) Regulations, which in 2000 implemented the 1994 European Works Councils Directive (UK0001146N). WERS 2004 found that just over one quarter of the workplaces that belonged to a multinational company were covered by a European Works Council. This figure had changed little since 1998, confirming that many of the companies formally affected by the TICE Regulations had already anticipated the ending of the opt-out.

Reaction of social partners

Commenting on the publication of the survey findings, Trades Union Congress (TUC) General Secretary Brendan Barber stated: ‘The report proves that better employment rights make a difference. Despite the clear business case for better work–life balance and flexible working, changes in the law are the real driver of change. Enlightened employers may get there before the law changes, but the only way to make rights universal is to legislate for them.’

Speaking at the official launch of the survey report, a representative for the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) observed that the survey findings demonstrated that employers had successfully addressed the challenge of implementing an unprecedented range of new regulatory measures.

Reference

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

More information about the report and the survey, including the first survey findings (540Kb PDF), is available at: http://www.routledge.com/textbooks/0415378133/default.asp

Paul Marginson, IRRU, University of Warwick

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