Democratising the workplace

Andrew Blick on Swimming with the tide: Democraticisng the places where we work by Chris Ward and Zoe Williams, Compass.

(Swimming with the tide, Compass, March 2008, 34pp)

Why is it that attempts to expand human rights into the workplace are so often regarded as justifiable only on grounds of economic efficiency? Many of us spend a large part of our lives at work, meaning that a denial of our basic entitlements while there has serious implications for our overall quality of live. As this authoritative work by Chris Ward and Zoe Williams puts it, the government "must signal the importance of workplace democracy - not just on economic grounds but by making the democratic case for it."

The report shows how the UK has fallen behind our Scandinavian and German counterparts in engaging workers in decisions. While there is a basic framework - in terms of EU directives and domestic statute - it does not function effectively enough in practice. Hope for better exists, as the case study of progress made towards functioning works councils at EDF Energy - which as a French owned company, has experience of the more inclusive model of workplace empowerment - shows. The authors identify trades unions as an important vehicle for democratic enhancement here: as indeed they could be more broadly, with their membership considerably exceeding that of all political parties combined. Establishing a "commission to report on the benefits of workplace democracy" is recommended. This idea is a good one. Perhaps, too, it is time to consider the case for incorporating economic and social rights into domestic law, alongside their civil and political counterparts, as part of the prospective British Bill of Rights (and duties). This measure, if properly backed up by a campaign of education and enforcement, could help bring about a cultural change. Workplace democracy might finally then be seen as as something more than a means of getting people to work even harder than they already do.