The Victorian workhouse revisited - The Week in HR

29 July 2016

A loud bell rings to announce the start of the day's work. Within seconds, it is impossible to hear another peal of the bell as the looms clatter and the room is filled with the distinctive sounds of bobbins and beaters, shuttles and jennys.

If you arrived after the bell rang, you were fined three pence. Or, to put that into more striking perspective, you'd lose about a fifth of your daily wage. Arriving more than five minutes after the bell rang and you would lose one of the 15 shillings you were paid for a week's work.

A large poster displays line after line of rules and fines for infractions. Caught mixing empty bobbins with full ones? You lose another shilling. Quarrel with another weaver? Another shilling would be deducted. If the quarrel escalates into a fight, then both of you lose a shilling.

Another poster details the precise timings for starting work, breakfast, lunch, dinner and finishing work. Extremely long days punctuated by brief breaks for food before heading back to tend the machines. There was no room for argument or discontent. The penalty for damaging any of the notices was immediate dismissal.

So, it is with a fistful of salt that I read a report issued by the business, innovation and skills select committee on working conditions. The report described a business "whose working practices are closer to that of a Victorian workhouse" than a 21st century employer.

Recently a major delivery company came under fire for paying its staff less than minimum wage. It also faced concerns surrounding holiday arrangements, hospital appointments and seven-day working. Another company has attempted to use its contracts of employment to ban its workers from using employment tribunals

In many cases, the companies are taking advantage of workers by not employing them at all – couriers, food delivery companies and taxi companies are increasingly contracting with self-employed people, instead of hiring them in the traditional way. This means that the workers do not receive any paid holiday, sick pay, parental leave, pension contributions or any other benefits that might be expected.

On the one hand, it is clear that many people in the UK work under difficult, stressful and, in the worst examples, punitive conditions. But it seems a bit of a stretch to compare this with 14-hour days, six days a week for wages that barely covered renting a couple of rooms in a slum and bread for the table.

It is even more of a stretch to draw comparisons with Victorian workhouses, where inmates were forced to do unpleasant jobs such as breaking rocks or grinding bones and were given a tasteless gruel to sustain them.

So, perhaps the real comparison is not between employment practices through the ages but between different employers operating today.

For every employer that has an employee assistance programme, a suite of thoughtful policies covering everything from emergency leave to training and development and a range of attractive benefits, there are others whose business model is based on paying as little as possible and retaining all of the control in the employment relationship.

And their impetus for doing this is the general public's seemingly relentless desire for the lowest possible prices. It is easy to name, shame and blame employers, but how many people think about employment practices when they click to buy online or pick up a bargain on the high street? 

Is one nation better than two?

"Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets ... The rich and the poor."
Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil, or the Two Nations

One aspect of all of this that should resonate with the City is the potential damaging impact on reputations. City institutions and professional service firms are, by and large, compliant employers offering some of the most attractive benefit packages in the country.

But they have also, by and large, outsourced many of the functions staffed by lower paid workers. Security guards, porters, mail rooms, cleaners and caterers keep those gilded employees safe, fed, tidy and productive.

Many City institutions were embarrassed by strikes by cleaners campaigning to be paid a living wage. Even paying the National Living Wage seems insufficient in a city that costs a lot more to live in than the rest of the UK and at institutions where bonuses hit seven and even eight figures.

The western world is in an unusually tumultuous period. Wage stagnation and inequality are fuelling much of the popular discontent with the status quo and establishment. Brexit will be one consequence of this. Having Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen as presidents of the USA and France respectively would be another.

City institutions prize stability and fear risk. To this end, they should think carefully about their own role as employers in the London, UK and global economies.

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