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Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Thu, 20 Jul 2017, 01:32 PM

 

The Taylor Review: 1990s answers to 2010s problems

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For me, the Taylor Review (pdf) of working practices is frustrating. There are some good things about it, not least of which is it's mere existence. Anything that brings the hidden abode of production into public view, and draws attention to the ground truth of working lives, is to be welcomed. I also welcome its demand that "workers must have a voice", its pointing out the hidden unemployment that is economic inactivity, and the insecurity evident in labour market flows data. I also like this:

People who have less autonomy over what they do at work tend to report lower wellbeing rates. The same is true of those people working in high-intensity environments. As such, allowing workers more autonomy over the content and pace of their work amongst other things can lead to higher wellbeing for these individuals and increased productivity.

There is, though, a big problem with it. There's a massive gap between diagnosis and remedy. This (p26) is bang right:

The key factor is an imbalance of power between individuals and employers. Where employers hold more power than employees, this can lead to poorer working conditions and lower wage levels.

How then can Taylor say this?:

The best way to achieve better work is not national regulation but responsible corporate governance, good management and strong employment relations within the organisation.

Surely not. The best way to achieve better work is to ensure that employees have the power to reject oppressive jobs and choose good ones. This requires that they have outside options - something to walk away to.

And yet Taylor doesn't mention the things that would increase these options and so empower workers. These include disempowering monopsonies; a more generous welfare safety net (such as a citizens income); stronger trades unions; and macroeconomic policy that creates plentiful jobs.

Rather than consider ways to empower workers to make their own choices, however, Taylor focuses upon top-down managerialist policies such as (quite mild) changes to law and taxation and ways to "incentivise employers... to use fairer and more responsible models." Workers it seems, are not so much active subjects as passive objects of policy onto whom working practices for good or ill are imposed.

In fact, two obvious ways through which workers might become more active subjects are not mentioned: trades unions and co-ops.

Instead, what we have is unreflective managerialism. We see this in his attitude to productivity. He writes:

Achieving improved productivity will rely on a number of things, not least investment in infrastructure, improved skill-levels, more technological advancement and delivery of the modern industrial strategy.

What's missing here is the need to improve management. As Bloom and Van Reenen have shown (pdf), there is "a long tail of extremely badly managed firms." Taylor comes close to seeing this, but thinks the answer lies in exhorting them to do better. Management's right to manage is unquestioned, and alternative corporate forms - such as genuine worker control rather than a little say - are largely ignored.

In this sense, there's a paradox about the report. On the one hand, there's a focus upon new changes in the workplace - the rise of platform employers, the gig economy and new technologies. And yet on the other hand, Taylor is stuck in the past. There's no acknowledgement that managerialism might be the cause of stagnant productivity and bad working conditions, and no clue that Brexit and Corbynism are both popular reactions against elite control.

What Taylor offers, then, is 1990s solutions to 2010s problems. Which isn't good enough.

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