Restructuring the Employment Relationship

Restructuring the Employment Relationship

Restructuring the Employment Relationship

Restructuring the Employment Relationship

Synopsis

This masterly new study presents the first large-scale empirical analysis of the changes in British work experiences and employment relationships between the 1980s and 1990s. Drawing on the Employment in Britain surveya national survey providing the richest source of evidence to date about individuals' experience of employmentit examines the impact of new technologies, the emergence of new management policies, the changing forms of employment contract, and the growth of job insecurity on people's experience of employment. The authors focus on the implications these developments have for the ways in which skills and work tasks have been changing, the nature of control at work, the degree of participation in decision-making, and the flexibility demanded at work. They assess whether there has been a tendency towards either a polarization or convergence of employment experiences between men and women, and between occupational classes. They offer fresh insight into how the changing quality of work in recent years has affected employee's involvement in their jobs and organizations, the stress they experience at work, and the propensity for absenteeism and staff turnover. While the study provides strong evidence of a marked trend towards upskilling, the authors take issue with the argument that a new type of employment relationship is emerging, arguing instead that the restructuring of the employment relationship has, in fact, reinforced traditional lines of division in the workforce.

Excerpt

Between the early 1970s and 1990s, a rapidly changing technical and economic environment was widely seen as heralding a transformation in the character of employment relations in Britain. Economic and political change combined to produce a far-reaching restructuring of British industry. It was a period that witnessed the collapse of large sectors of traditional manufacturing industry and a marked shift towards an economy based primarily on the service industries. At the same time, heightened competitive pressures, linked to the increasingly global nature of markets and, particularly, to the process of integration of the West European economies, confronted British management with the need for major improvements in performance in terms of both cost and quality. The economic pressures for change were reinforced by political pressures. The election in 1979 of a government committed to 'new right' economic policies encouraged employers to rethink fundamentally their employment policies by giving priority to market principles and labour flexibility, while precipitating restructuring through monetary policies that provoked a particularly brutal recession.

Among the ways in which employers responded to the constraints and opportunities that came with economic and political change, four have particularly drawn attention. The first was the rapid adoption of new computerized and information technologies, which were thought to have substantial consequences for skills and work organization in both the manufacturing and the service industries. Second, there was the emergence of a new philosophy of management -- Human Resource Management -- that involved a direct challenge to the traditional pattern of industrial relations. Third, there was a shift away from 'standard' forms of employment contract and an increased use of 'non-standard' contracts, such as part-time and temporary work, which threatened a fragmentation and even polarization of employment conditions. And finally there was a marked increase in labour market insecurity, resulting partly from the experience of two recessions, but also from a continuous process of reorganization and manpower reduction.

While there was widespread acceptance of the potential significance of these changes, there have been sharp differences in views about their relative importance, their extent, and the nature of their impact. For some, these developments represented a fundamental rupture with the types of production system that had prevailed in the first three post-war decades; opening the way to radically changed employment relations (Bell 1974; Piore and Sabel 1984; Kern and Schumann 1987, 1992; Boyer 1988; Womack et al. 1990). The highly differentiated division . . .

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