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Collective employee voice needed to solve productivity problem

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Baroness Prosser and Unions 21 have launched a new commission into collective voice

The UK’s productivity problem won’t be solved unless employees are given a collective voice in the workplace, according to Labour peer Margaret Prosser.

Speaking at the launch of a commission into collective voice at the House of Commons yesterday, commission chair Prosser asked: “How can productivity increase without listening to the people who can actually make it increase?”

“Employees know more about running the business than the people running the business.”

She called on businesses and unions to work together on the commission to reshape collective voice in the modern workplace and find the answers to the productivity problems faced by the UK.

Prosser pointed out that the government’s industrial strategy, set out in November 2017, said little about the role of unions, management or employee engagement. She added that in excluding unions from attempts to address issues in the UK economy, employee voice is low or absent.

Speaking to HR magazine at the commission launch, Prosser said: “I think there’s an attitude in business – and encouraged by the government – to make the fastest buck as quick as we can.

“Workplaces that are successful are those where people work collectively on things,” she explained, adding that employers that don’t listen to their workforces are “missing a trick as the workforce knows what’s going on and what works for the business”.

Prosser went on to highlight that there is a particular challenge in giving employees a voice in the private sector, citing findings that just 13% of private sector employees are union members. “The majority of private sector employees have no collective voice in the workplace and so there is something broken about capitalism,” she explained. This leads to “corporate short-termism”, which in turn leads to casualties like the “collapse of Carillion”.

Mike Clancy, general secretary of union Prospect and vice-chair of the commission, agreed that “the low private sector coverage shows the territory we face and that we’ve got to do something about it”.

He pointed out that it’s not just the gig economy where employees are struggling to have a say, adding that if employees are given “voice on micro issues in the organisation then why not a voice on the macro issues as well”.

“Businesses may want employees to contribute to job design but then you also need to give them a say in the strategic decisions that affect their job security,” he said.

The economy is more vulnerable now because of Brexit and the next generation of technology insertion, he added, pointing to an imminent need to collectively address these concerns. “HR often thinks unions are a pain but HR also doesn’t want to be in a position where the last union turns its lights off and there’s no collective voice,” he said.

Unions and HR must instead share agendas and objectives and become partners for the benefit of all parties, Clancy told HR magazine.

“The decline of union influence has at times also been reflected in the decline of HR’s influence because they both look after people issues,” he explained. “Issues in the economy need to be addressed by the reappraisal of bargaining of unions and this will stimulate the influence of HR too.”

The commission has been launched by Unions 21 and Prosser to explore how the role of collective voice at work can help overcome low productivity, falling wages and the advancement of industrial strategy in the UK. It is cross-party with engagement from unions, academics and employers and begins formally in September for 18 months.