Workplace democracy: bossing the bosses around

In this weeks’ New Statesman there is a stunning article by Peter Wilby, advocating that democracy in the workplace be considered a human right.

It’s worth reading on this, Work Your Proper Hours Day, which is “the day when the average person who does unpaid overtime finishes the unpaid days they do every year, and starts earning for themselves.”

Democracy at work ought to be a human right.

It is hard to think of anything more unfashionable than workplace democracy. It gets just eight hits on the Social Science Research Network website against 348 on shareholder value.

All political parties insist that, when it comes to public services such as education and health, we must be active citizens, voicing opinions, making choices and “co-producing” public goods. Yet in our working lives, we must be treated as ignorant and foolish children to be dominated and controlled. Trade unions were originally the vehicles through which most working people exercised power and influence and connected to the wider political process. The workplace used to be a kind of academy of citizenship. The decline of the unions – only 28 per cent of employees are now members – is surely connected intimately to the general disconnection from politics.

So can we revive workplace democracy? Compass, the democratic-left pressure group, thinks we can and must. In a pamphlet to be published shortly (Swimming With the Tide: Democratising the Places Where We Work by Chris Ward and Zoe Williams), it argues that it is “unacceptable” that “we can be masters of our destiny in all aspects of our lives except in terms of our relationship with our employers”.

I would go further: under a government that argues we must all find redemption through work, it is preposterous. But capitalism has pulled a clever trick. It encourages people to define themselves through what they consume: I drive a BMW, you drive a Volvo; I shop at Waitrose, you shop at Tesco; I take an independent holiday in South America, you take a package holiday to the Costa del Sol. Work is just a means to an end. It no longer defines character (I borrow that word from the great sociologist Richard Sennett) or offers personal fulfilment. It simply allows us to improve our status as consumers. Where once the promise of a place in the kingdom of heaven guaranteed docility at work, so now does the promise of a place on a luxury cruise.

You can make a decent argument for workplace democracy on efficiency grounds. It stands to reason that, where employees feel they have some say in how the office or factory operates, they will take fewer days off, stick with the company for longer, co-operate more readily with the bosses, and generally improve productivity. Compass quotes research showing that, in companies where staff are consulted, financial performance is 33 per cent more likely to be above average.

Britain’s productivity is well below the European Union average; productivity in Sweden and Denmark, which have strong unions and well-developed systems of workplace democracy, is much higher. The New Labour guru Charles Leadbeater – who has no truck with anything as quaint as an office, factory or company – argues that the future lies with the masses organising themselves and thinking together, rather as web users do on Wikipedia or Linux. “Barefoot organisation”, as he calls it, is the best route to innovation (see http://www.wethinkthebook.net).

All this may be true. But as a report for the Work Foundation puts it (Speaking Up! by David Coats), “it is a hallmark of the triumph of neoliberal economics” that discussion of workplace democracy “is couched in the language of efficiency”, as though its merits would be negated if employers could prove it led to lower output. Democracy at work ought to be a question of human rights, just as the right to vote in parliamentary elections is. If economic efficiency were the only yardstick, we might follow the Chinese and rule out political democracy as well.

From April, new UK regulations come into force requiring all companies or organisations with 50 or more staff to provide information to employees and to consult on decisions. Employer enthusiasm for this new deal may be gauged by the response of the Institute of Directors to the EU directive that led to the regulations: it was, the institute judged, “quite alien to British workplaces”. We can expect employers to take decisions and then “consult” staff as an afterthought; to favour tame “staff associations” as consultative channels in preference to trade unions; to offer minimal time and funding for employees’ representatives to acquire the necessary negotiating skills; and, if all else fails, simply to ignore the law, risking a not very severe fine of £50,000. Unsurprisingly, new Labour framed the regulations as weakly – or, as it prefers, “flexibly” – as it could.

With recession approaching, workplace democracy may well be regarded as a distraction. But we have seen the weaknesses of unregulated capitalism. The thought may seem a fanciful one, but if Northern Rock had been compelled to explain and justify its business strategy to the workforce, it might not now be in such dire straits.

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Torture flights: US lied to UK government

Questions remain.

Is there a torture centre in the US base on Diego Garcia?

That is to say, is the British government allowing torture to take place on its territory?

From the FT:

The US admitted on Thursday to inadvertently misleading the British government by using UK territory to refuel two “rendition” flights carrying alleged terrorists without informing ministers.The disclosure forced David Miliband, UK foreign secretary, to apologise to parliament and prompted furious responses from senior MPs accusing the US of “deception” and “lying”.

Some US officials were taken aback by the vehement criticisms expressed by MPs on Thursday, particularly those questioning the credibility of their main ally. Gordon Brown, British prime minister, said such renditions from UK territory were “a very serious issue” and promised to put in place procedures to ensure it would “never happen again”.

Mr Miliband has spoken to Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, several times this week, making clear that he would give his fullest backing to the relationship, while seeking guarantees that any other relevant information was shared, according to US diplomats.

Referring to his discussions with Ms Rice, Mr Miliband said: “We both agree that the mistakes made in these two cases are not acceptable and she shares my deep regret that this information has only just come to light.”

Michael Hayden, CIA director, said that administrative errors had led to “wrong” information being given to the British about two flights that stopped to refuel on the British Indian Ocean territory of Diego Garcia in 2002.

Mr Hayden said neither of the terrorist suspects was subjected to torture. “One was ultimately transferred to Guantánamo and the other was returned to his home country. These were rendition operations, nothing more,” he said.

US officials have not disclosed the identity or nationality of the individuals or explained why they were being moved to the US detention centre at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba and to Morocco on those flights. The incident was uncovered in an internal investigation, launched late last year, that interviewed crews on board the flights.

Previously Britain had insisted that it was not aware of any British territory being used to transfer terrorism suspects outside normal extradition procedures since President George W. Bush took office in 2001.

A Council of Europe report in 2006 accused 14 European countries – including the UK, Germany, Italy and Sweden – of co-operating with extra-judicial abductions, claiming that Diego Garcia had been used. The allegations were strenuously denied.

The legal arrangements for the use of Diego Garcia do not require the US to declare such operations, according to US officials. However, the US has taken a policy decision to make such disclosures.

British intelligence officers have been advised by government lawyers that any direct involvement in rendition leading to torture would leave them liable to prosecution under European human right law, according to intelligence sources.

While the legal advice was given wide circulation within Whitehall by the end of 2003, when human rights concerns were coming to the fore, fewer people were aware of the recommendations at the time of the incident in Diego Garcia.