Employers hide in the shadows

Ever since the industrial revolution, it has generally been assumed that work involves one employer, one employee and one thing that unites them, called the employment relationship. This is so patently obvious that no-one gives it a second thought.

Yet it is a very big assumption – an assumption that may be on the cusp of becoming obsolete, according to the authors of an important new book.

For an unknown, but unquestionably substantial number of people, work is now done in arrangements where control and responsibility are so intensely ambiguous, that the question ‘who do you work for?’ is difficult to answer. They serve several organisations with blurred edges, hovering in legal and psychological limbo between one economic entity and another. Yet by no stretch of the imagination could they be said to be ‘self-employed’.

Think about it: a school dinner lady transferred to a private sector catering specialist must, in effect, satisfy three different employers: a school, a catering company, and a council; all of them have some influence on her work, and all may have some claim to her loyalty.

Or what about a call centre worker representing an insurance company on the telephone? Who really has the greater say over how the worker works – the call centre (legal employer) or insurance company (client)? Or consider the case of an agency temporary worker who suffers an injury on a building site? Who is liable for compensation?

“In practice, it is often unclear where one organisation ends and another begins,” the book states. In these murky circumstances, the factor with the greatest impact on working life is not the employment relationship, but the shifting power relationship between supplier and client. If a worker wants a pay rise, they may be better advised to lobby their employer’s client, rather than the organisation on their payslip.

Getting something done no longer necessarily implies employing people: a business contract has emerged as a valid alternative to a wage contract. Yet the rise of outsourcing is wreaking havoc with the traditional understanding of work. According to the book: “Every time one organisation chooses to outsource, another organisation accepts a new client, and is placed under some pressure to meet that clients’ demands… often with specific requirements relating to how human resources are to be managed.” In effect, a lot of people are employed not by single economic agents, but by networks of organisations, or ‘hybrid forms’ such as public-private partnerships.

Judging from the eight case studies here (anonymous, alas), working in these ‘multi-agency situations’ is a fairly miserable experience. Business contracting is a classic distancing mechanism: those who do the work become remote from those who want it done, and responsibility for workers is duly diluted. And this means all kinds of fundamental questions become difficult to answer.

For example, who should have the obligation to train employees? Maybe the client, maybe the employer. Who is legally responsible for employment rights? On what basis can commitments be made to workers, if, at the stroke of a fickle pen, a contract might go elsewhere (assuming the market is not too dysfunctional)? And why should anyone care about their work if they are uncertain who is in charge of it? A nurse who enters the NHS for public-spirited reasons is unlikely to be delighted if transferred to a profit-hungry health provider and expected to identify with corporate goals they do not believe in.

Given all this, it might be observed that the advantage of multi-agency networks is all with the employers – a wily means of transferring risk to a workforce. By and large, so it is. But the authors suggest there are some serious caveats here, too.

Ambiguous reporting lines do little for getting high performance out of people, little for commitment, culture or loyalty, and may even put a brake on achieving a high-skill economy. The whole notion of human resource management (HRM) is based on the idea of a single, clear-cut employment relationship in which people can be developed and motivated to fulfil an organisation’s strategy. But multiple employment relationships introduce great uncertainty as to the validity of this exercise. HRM is allegedly about people as assets, not chattels.

What is more, the advantage is rarely simply economic. Often, the motivation for entering into network-style business relationships is institutional or political – take public-private partnerships again, or the desire to traumatise a workforce into changing faster.

The great achievement of this book is in analysing how new forms of organisation translate into the experience of work – a subject which, due to the arcane mysteries of academic specialisation, has escaped close attention until now. But it contains only tentative suggestions for restoring fairness, and no clear estimate of how many people are affected.

On this latter point, I see trouble ahead. This book is another to emerge from the invariably brilliant research of the Future of Work programme, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Broadly, much of this has tended to question narratives of mass disruption at work, and to rehabilitate the traditional career – a position that Off Message has taken great glee in publicising.

Yet this book suggests there really has been a vivid, debilitating transformation in the employment relationship for many people. To avoid tedious scholarly cop-outs, such as that modern work is ‘paradoxical’ and ‘contradictory’, someone, somewhere has a tricky job of reconciliation to do.

Fragmenting Work: Blurring Organizational Boundaries and Disordering Hierarchies, edited by Mick Marchington, Damian Grimshaw, Jill Rubery and Hugh Willmott, Oxford University Press, 2005 priced 22.50

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