Monday, 27 October 2014

And so it begins

Just over a month since the election, and National are making the labour laws on things like tea-breaks more “flexible”. This doesn’t mean the workers will be able to flex them, obviously. Only the employer. Oh, but it’s all right, they can only take your tea-break away if you agree to it. No coercion there. After all, it’s not like they control your weekly wage or can hold the veiled threat of dismissal over your head or anything, is it?
I can see how they’ll argue it from here. It’ll be “Let the market sort it out” – the idea that if you don’t like the conditions your employer offers you can go find another job somewhere else. It’s Economics 101. And, like Economics 101, it ignores the fact that labour supply is negatively elastic. People work more hours when their pay is low, so they can be sure they’ve got enough cash to cover their needs; they take time off when it’s high and they can afford it. That means the employer gets more work out of them by offering less in exchange for it, which means that the law of supply and demand will always push wages and conditions straight down to the bottom. I’ve argued this before, more than once. It is something that those who run this country, and those who vote for them, urgently need to understand.
What’s the alternative? For now, I’ll settle for keeping the government-mandated regulations we have, or used to have, on what wages and conditions are acceptable. In the long term, however, the problem is that while “flexible” very easily (as here) becomes a weasel word for “exploitative”, it does refer to something real as well. Different workplaces operate under different constraints. No one size fits all. So if the market won’t fix the problem, what will? Dare I suggest democracy might? I don’t mean democracy via parliament, I mean direct democracy. I mean workers owning equal shares in the company, setting company policy, voting executives in and out.
Yes, if you are the kind of person to whom a company is something you own rather than something that tells you what to do, this would be a bit of a shock to the system. By all means argue against the idea. But let’s be clear: what you stand to lose is neither more nor less nor other than your personal power over a bunch of other people’s lives. If you think that makes you sound like the bad guy, you might want to think very carefully about that. Don’t come complaining to me. You hold your employees’ well-being, present and future, in the palm of your hand. You don’t want that? Give it back to them.

No comments:

Post a Comment