Partnership working

The DTI has hailed the latest national agreement betweeen employers and the unions in the printing industry as a model that other industry sectors should adopt.

At its November launch, Ken Iddon, past president of the British Printing Industries Federation (BPIF) said: “This is a significant milestone for the whole of the printing industry. This landmark partnership will enable us all to benefit from a more modern and vibrant industry, which now has a much brighter future.”

What is it?

Every year the BPIF and Amicus reach a national agreement covering more than 30,000 printers. However, in September 2003 they agreed that with the existing format they were not going to make progress on several areas, such as flexible working times, work-life balance and sick pay. So, they approached the DTI and received £250,000 of partnership funding.

They hired Acas and installed Frank Burchill, visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde, as chairman of the steering group, and then sat down to iron out their differences.

It took nine days, spread over three sessions to reach agreement, but eventually they produced the Partnership at Work Agreement and Code of Practice, which came into force on 16 November.

It contains 12 key objectives such as increasing dialogue between employers, employees and their union, improving productivity, reducing excessive overtime working, assisting employees to adapt to change, and enabling effective recruitment and development of employees.

It also contains new provisions on key issues, such as sick pay, the regulation of agency and temporary workers, information and consultation, and flexible working patterns.

The group of employers and unions that drew up the agreement will continue to meet four times a year to discuss progress towards the objectives as well as any relevant new legislation.

Ultimately, progress will depend on the use of this forum for ongoing dialogue and co-operation.

Burchill said: “This is a very useful forum for making employers understand how pervasive employment law has now become. We’ve structured it in a way that enables both sides to get down to the real issues.”

Can it work elsewhere?

The DTI has already provided funding for the paper industry to work towards a similar national agreement.

In early October, Burchill began discussions with the Confederation of Paper Industries, Amicus, the GMB and Transport and General Workers’ Union. The DTI said that other industries had shown an interest, but that it had yet to receive any more bids for funding.

More widespread adoption will probably depend on the success of the agreement in the printing industry. Yet, despite all the fanfares, not everyone in the printing industry is convinced that the agreement will work.

Of the 30,000 printers eligible to vote for this agreement just 21% did so, supporting it by a margin of two to one. This means that just a fifth of the printers affected by the agreement voted in favour of it.

Catherine Hearn, group HR director of Polestar, one of UK’s largest printing firms, was no more than cautiously optimistic.

“Such a wide agreement is a positive step forward for the industry, but it is expensive for employers and suffers from a cumbersome consultation mechanism,” she said.

“I do hope, though, that it will gain momentum and be able to anticipate and agree changes more and more quickly and in a more commercial way.”

However, those involved in formulating the agreement remain positive. Tony Burke, assistant general secretary of Amicus said: “There are bound to be those who are waiting for this to crash and burn, but from our point of view this is the way forward. It is the foundation stone for the fair and prosperous UK printing industry of the future.”

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