Friday, July 01, 2005

Worker collectives and multi-agent jobs

This is a bit of a stab at some theorising and is the first time I've tried to do it outside of the academic context. There are no references to market theories, NZ legislation or studies and as such is entirely unacademic. I've tried to argue a line of reasoning however I am aware that the topic I have picked could do with a much longer post and at least a few references. I can't imagine that someone would want to use this to pass it off as their own, but if they are that silly (no references, hello?) or would like to quote and develop my argument, please reference to me and feed back to me because I would love to hear. To the kiwi bloggers both left and right, I would love to hear thoughts, comments, reactions. Strikewatch has understandably steadily decreased down a trickle of traffic butI feel that it belongs here and not on Random Contributionz, where perhaps more people would see it.

This theory attempts to outline the view that when jobs that can be shared among others or are ‘multi-agent’, are subject to standard market forces and lack an effective worker collective in their place of employment, workers in these positions like these will be less able to bargain for an increase in terms and conditions over time.

Firstly, the terms will be defined, specifically: ‘multi-agent’ jobs, ‘standard market forces’, ‘effective worker collective’ and ‘net decrease in terms and conditions over time’. Then the theory will be introduced and discussed.

‘Multi-agent’ jobs are those in which the work to be completed is largely of a ‘care’ nature as opposed to ‘responsibility’ and where there are multiple agents or workers employed to complete the common task. What this means is that the workers have equal or comparable training and all that the common task comprises can be completed by another agent. The unplanned absence of one or multiple agents does not stop the work being done, however it may result in a slower delivery of service or product. Examples of these are inbound call centres with similarly or generically trained agents, checkout operators, large-scale caterers and retail sales staff paid solely by salary or in combination with negligible commission potential.

‘Standard market forces’ refers to a market-driven labour market that is subject to limited regulations governing areas such as minimum wage floors, youth rates, hire and fire rights of employers, employment contracts and health and safety. The New Zealand labour market is subject to such constraints and is the model used for reference.

‘Effective worker collective’ refers to a democratically-run collective of workers that is effective in securing positive changes to the terms and conditions at their place of work. Effectiveness in this case will generally revolve around the level to which the workers are ‘organised’ and able to apply pressure on the employer to grant a concession or change a practice. References to the word ‘union’ in current industrial legislation secure (what some regard as monopolistic) rights for trade unions to represent workers. While there is no compulsion for a trade union to be affiliated to the Council of Trade Unions (NZ), it is a separate argument as to whether such affiliation is a strategic necessity for survival and will not be considered here. The definition of a union is likewise a separate argument and warrants discussion at another time.

‘Terms and conditions over time’ refers to employment contract that covers the workers and governs all aspects of the work, including hours of work, penal rates, perks, disciplinary measures and employee conduct. ‘Over time’ refers to the period from when the contract is negotiated to when it is renegotiated. Where collective agreements can expire anywhere between six months to two or three years, individual contracts may not be renegotiated regularly or for long periods of time.

This theory is built also on two conditions: that the industry faces genuine supply of skilled workers and the supply is primarily steady with few prolonged troughs. While there may be variances in the level of skill in each individual worker, it is held that such variances will be in excess of the level of skill required to complete the job. Workers may have industry or other experience that warrants limited on-the-job training in order to counter issues with proprietory systems or products unique to that employer, which are not in themselves necessarily skill deficiencies but knowledge deficiencies.

As workers on individual employment agreements are unable to withhold labour (‘strike’) without breaking their conditions of employment, arguments for a rise in their terms and conditions will hinge on: employer goodwill, employer fear of losing trained staff to competitors, employer fear of productivity through willful misperformance of work.

Where there are multiple agents performing a similar job, the employer runs the risk of being resented for favouratism shown to certain staff through increased wage or perk entitlements and affecting productivity or losing trained staff. Where the employer wishes to show goodwill and reward all staff, direct monetary entitlements are less likely to be employed as they are a direct cost to the employer that may not create the desired effect: perhaps even a negative response through a perception of being ‘bought out’ or paid to ‘keep quiet’ as it were. Indirect rewards such as a one-off dinner, social event or gift package for staff have the potential to create goodwill even where the monetary value of such outlay is less than a one-off payment. An ongoing monetary reward (eg. performance targets, wage rises) is likely to be more expensive because an ongoing monetary reward that is geared to be low-cost runs the risk of alienating and offending workers, and a sizeable increase based on goodwill alone may conflict with business interests in keeping unnecessary costs low. This is particularly true in industries where goodwill has little or negligible effect, evidenced by high staff turnover.

If, as mentioned earlier, there is a healthy supply of skilled workers, then employer fears of losing trained staff may be mitigated. Primary sources of concern however relate to the training of new employees: whether it is a costly process (time or directly financial) and whether the training of employees unnecessarily disrupts service or product delivery. In the absence of a dedicated trainer or team of trainers, an employer will find it costly to train new employees, either if trained directly by the employer or if existing employees scale down their work-rate in order to demonstrate or teach the new employee. Generally, there are three levels in an industry which will affect the cost of training a new employee: the complexity of the task or industry and therefore length of time required to become self-sufficient, the extent of proprietary knowledge required to complete the task and whether or not the employee can become sefl-sufficient by themselves or, if another staff member has to be diverted to assist them, how long that staff member is diverted from their work. Accordingly, employer concerns over replacing trained staff will vary based on the industry and task, as well as the size of the employer and presence of any dedicated training structure.

Employers’ fears over reduced productivity as a result of a dispute with a staff member are generally in the advantaged position. However, if there is a skills shortage or if significant legal obstacles exist to timely and reasonable dismissal of recalcitrant staff, then these fears are much greater due to potential financial loss through litigation resulting from aggrieved staff. There is much debate over the extent to which legislation designed to protect workers and the right to pursue personal grievances unfairly constricts workers, however that is a debate unable to be addressed in this post. In New Zealand, significant obstacles exist to ‘unjustifiable’ dismissal, however employers may opt for an out-of-court settlement with ex-employees if the costs of defending the charges (with no recompense for costs incurred) exceed the demands of the ex-employee. Small to medium business owners who have little money to spend on lawyers are particularly susceptible to ‘cowboy allegations’ from ex-employees.

However, staff on an individual agreement essentially have two options: ‘voice’ and ‘choice’. Ultimately, voice will be ineffective if employed outside of a legally-protected collective of workers as there is no credible threat behind ‘voice’. Unless contractually specified, ‘choice’ can occur at any time and remains ultimately the worker’s sovereign prerogative. Where a worker in a multi-agent job dissents or otherwise attempts to meaningfully negatively influence productivity, such attempts will be steadily more ineffective, the higher the number of other workers available to pick up the overflow.

Effective organisation by a legally-protected collective of workers is able to genuinely threaten an employer’s productivity and therefore provide leverage for their claims. For individual workers in multi-agent positions however, they will have steadily less luck where the number of additional agents grows, where their job complexity and training needs decrease and where there is healthy competition from the market for skilled workers. While there are other conditions for the effectiveness of a collective of workers, the optimum conditions for individuals to improve their terms and conditions exist in low-scale worksites where the cost of providing perks to all staff is more palatable or where there is a skills shortage.


Anonymous Rachel said...

Nice to see you finally post something!

Something to consider, especially regarding the retail sector is the number of Head Offices that are now based in Australia. There are quite a few differences in employment legislation and standard practices, particularly in relation to holiday pay, which often impacts on the wages offered by these employers.

In my job, I speak to many frustrated retail managers who are unable to offer higher than the minimum wage, as the wage is set by an HR manager based in Sydney who they've never spoken to! So, I would agree with your theory in General. In my opinion, Retail workers have little power regarding their wages and conditions if they are bargaining individually, as the person who chooses to employ them has no or little power over the rates set. Instead of a union, their 'intermediary' is their manager, who could face serious problems in their own job if they lobbied for better wages and conditions on behalf of their staff.

Your observation of intrinsic benefits offered to encourage motivation fits with a 'unitarist' framework (see for info on Conflict theories - useful background for this kind of discussion).

I'm sure you could find some figures to support your theory if you really tried - that's my challenge to you!

3:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So many words, so little wisdom. Mate, in the real world you don't get paid by the word.

9:29 PM  
Blogger Mellie said...

'Mate', perhaps there's something you wish to share about my theory that bothers you? I'm flattered that you took the time to comment but not so suprised that you weren't prepared to critique.

In the real world, call centres can be the worst places to work because of high regulation and monitoring, reduced discretion and basic if not minimal skills training. Being paid a reasonable wage to put up with it isn't an alien idea.

10:51 AM  
Anonymous Rachel said...

There is a lot of growing research to support this - Call Centres tend to have high stress, high turnover and less opportunities for promotion or upskilling.

Good wages is good for both employees AND employers - it remunerates those doing shitty jobs, and helps employers with recruitment and retention.

It's an oldie but a goodie: "pay peanuts, hire monkeys".

10:57 AM  

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