Back on the chain gang?

James Hurley asks if employers will still bother to look after workers' rights during a recession

Recessions are supposed to be a good time for employers. I doubt many are actually enjoying the rounds of redundancies, cost cutting or dealing with the resulting low morale, but at least it’s a buyer’s market.

If you’re fortunate enough to be hiring, you’ll have the pick of the talent at a bargain price and it should be easier to keep hold of the decent employees that you have got.

A number of business owners have intimated to me over recent months that they’re not expecting to hear too many complaints from employees in the immediate future. When there’s blood on the streets, it’s a good time to buy, but if common wisdom is anything to go by, it’s also a good time to revert to the ‘JFDI’ school of management.

It was in this context that I read Lucy Kelleway’s column in yesterday’s FT with great interest. Her argument that the recession is forcing the professional classes to revert to the more base working instincts was a persuasive one.

“When one’s job is at risk and one’s savings are a shadow of their former selves,” she wrote, “the search for meaning at work is meaningless. The point of a job becomes rather more basic: to feed and house (and, at a pinch, to educate) one’s family and oneself.”

While I’m not entirely convinced by her argument that the economic recession is resulting in an overdue ‘correction’ of the middle class attitude to work, or that it’s necessarily a good thing (“we demanded that…work be interesting in itself and, even more dangerously and preposterously, that it should have meaning”) I’m sure she’s onto something when it comes to the realignment of employee motivations.

My concern is that companies will use the hard times to exploit employees. If retention is no longer an issue, will management bother to provide a decent working environment? Along with environmentalism, green wash or not, the boom times were also accompanied by an enthusiasm for all things CSR. Ronald Cohen grandly predicted that “great companies are going to be judged on their engagement with social initiatives”.

Surely those should start at home? If so, Amazon hasn’t been paying attention. An investigation by The Sunday Times found that the online retailer has been making its staff work seven days a week and threatening them with the sack if they take time off sick. There’s no suggestion that the company is doing anything illegal, but the practices uncovered by the newspaper point to a company that’s not overly concerned about providing decent working conditions for its employees.

When Allan Lyall, vice president of EU operations at the firm says that “demand for permanent roles from our temporary employees is at such a high level that we no longer need to recruit externally for permanent positions”, he’s arguing that conditions can’t be that bad. But if enough people need the money to create such competition for vacancies at the company, why bother worrying about treating employees well?

Amazon might be the most popular online retailer in the UK, but such revelations will be damaging for such a high profile brand. Unfortunately, I doubt they’re the only ones giving workers a rough ride, and smaller companies might even be more likely to get away with it.

The death of the old-school union represented a giant leap forward for business and enterprise in the UK, but it’s crucial that employee rightsremain in place, regardless of what’s motivating staff to work.

In any case, the benefits entrepreneurial businesses will get back from encouraging a collaborative and considerate working culture surely far outweigh the short term cost and productivity savings bought at the cost of the kind of draconian measures seen at Amazon.  

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