HR should not be seen as a replacement for trade unions

I have just read – with a mixture of annoyance and amusement – your article on the government’s 2005 Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS), entitled ‘Trade unions drinking in last chance saloon’ (Personnel Today, 12 July).

According to you, unions today are out of touch, and a combination of better HR and ‘direct consultation’ between management and employees has made unions increasingly irrelevant.

No-one can dispute the historical role unions have played in advancing workplace rights, but has the world of work really become so humanised that there is no need for collective workforce organisation?

In the same issue of Personnel Today, Stephen Overell reports that the 2005 WERS also shows 57% of workers now have their pay set unilaterally by management, up from 49% in 1998. No doubt ‘direct consultation’ was involved there; in other words, telling people what they will get.

While some individual rights at work have improved, there is still massive and blatant disregard for these rights by many employers. This is shown by the fact that 30,000 women lose their jobs each year because of pregnancy, with only 3% of those who experience a problem lodging a claim at an employment tribunal.

Personnel Today recently reported that Scandinavian HR workers were the most satisfied in Europe. Ironically, union membership in the Scandinavian countries is the highest in the industrialised world. The prevailing culture is one in which unions and HR managers work together to influence principal management and organisational change.

As long as the idea is peddled here in the UK that HR is somehow a replacement for unions, it will continue to risk being seen primarily as a management device, rather than a tool that really can help promote genuine workforce empowerment and social advance.

Dave Chappell
Firefighter and union representative, Devon Fire and Rescue Service


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