The early 19th Century contains a forgotten history lesson in trying to understand the changes in the relationship between the workforce and business.
Farming in the early 19th Century (by far the main employer) was mainly open field farming where wealthy landowners leased out their farms to tenant farmers. These tenant farmers then brought in labour to work the farms. Farm labourers were selected at annual labour fairs in the villages and small towns close to the farms. When selected, the labourer would be employed by the farmer for a year or so and live on the farm – usually sharing in the work and eating with the farmer and his family.
This seemingly idyllic relationship can be likened to working relationships in the 1960’s and 1970’s when employment was meant to be “for life”. It was the breakdown in that relationship and the tensions that ensued that led to British trades-unions forcing a mass of industrial disputes in the 1970’s that Margaret Thatcher’s government sought to end.
In the 1820’s and 1830’s, the annual fairs gave way to monthly contracts and then often to weekly and daily as the world of agriculture was devastated after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, as weather conditions worsened for farming and as poor conditions led to a rise in disease that devastated cattle and sheep in many areas. The need to keep costs lower and lower led to wage reductions on a regular basis and the invention of the threshing machine was seen as a needed investment by farmowners that could afford the investment.
For the farm workers, by 1830, life had become intolerable and the “Swing” riots ensued. Rowland E Prothero (Baron Ernle), writing in his “English Farming” (1888):
“While the Luddites broke up machinery, gangs of rural labourers destroyed threshing machines, or avenged the fancied conspiracy of farmers by burning farm-houses, stacks, and ricks, or wrecking the shops of butchers and bakers. In the riots of 1830-31, when “Swing” and his proselytes were at work, agrarian fires blazed from Dorsetshire to Lincolnshire.”
Fast-forward to 2015 and we are now confronted by the realization that business (our 21st Century equivalent of 19th Century farming in terms of employment) is now employing zero hours contracts with increasing regularity. This 19th Century response to a 21st Century problem goes hand-in-hand with the UK’s inability to increase its productivity to anywhere near the levels of Germany and France (let alone the USA).
Luddism (and its followers, the Luddites) was a cry against the fear of mechanization in mills and early factories (and the farms) while the “Swing” riots, although exacerbated by the introduction of threshing machines, was more than this. It was a reaction against a change in relationships that had been developed over many years. This breakdown of the relationship between the farm labourer and the farmer (and the poverty into which farm labourers were thrown) led to riots and the extraordinary backlash of Government (labourers were imprisoned, many were banished to the colonies and many were executed).
Zero Hours Working and Independence
This time around, zero hours contracting is also a symptom of a breakdown in relationships. It is common in low-skill environments and very common in many areas where Government (local and national) has decided to outsource. Many of these jobs occur where the individual on a zero-hours contract is working in social care. This is an example of short-term cost requirements that can easily lead to long-term quality disappearance – as the ability of the carer is their responsibility as far as the contractor is concerned.
For some time, the relationships between employer and worker in manufacturing and services has been changing – and reflects the way of agriculture in the early 19th Century. Workers are now more like sub-contractors as Tom Peters (a leader in management thinking) envisaged back in 1994 when he wrote an article in The Independent – “Travel the Independent Road”:
“I contend that…everyone, bellhop, boss, scientist, had best achieve the mindset of the independent contractor.”
With the growth in self-employment in the UK since the financial crash of 2007/8 (where 15% of all workers are now self-employed and one-third of employment since 2010 has been in this area according to the Bank of England), we do appear to be changing the relationship between bosses and workers. In the Bank of England’s Q1 2015 Report, it asserts that “much of the recent increase in self-employment reflects longer-term trends.”
The steady ageing of the population and the increased distance between business managers (the most similar to tenant farmers in the 1830’s) and the average worker (at least in terms of salary) suggests that the 20th Century may well have been just a phase in the development of capitalism. It may well be that the natural default position is more ambiguous – offering those with skills the ability to sell into a marketplace with a range of options rather than the existing with one employer that pays for those skills for the whole of a working life.
In highly skilled jobs within the film industry, for example, it has been common for some time for companies to be formed just to make one film. Skills are brought to bear on that film (whether by actors, directors, script writers, cameramen/women and all the rest) who then disperse at the end of the production. They leave with payment for their role and investment of time and skill and, hopefully, with their reputations enhanced – reputations that will help them towards the next collaboration.
In most work, the old mentality of learning on a job and working for the same company for life persists. Zero hours contracts splits the worker from the employer so that they cannot gain training and benefits from that skill accumulation.
The Labour Party, in the run-up to the May 7th General Election, calls for the curtailment of such contracts. However, as argued in many areas, there are many types of such contracts (not all bad) – Independent 3rd April 2015 – and the move to such contracts may well be a harbinger of changes in the working structure. If the latter, while abuses at work need to be stopped, then we still need to have a change our thinking about how we assist those who are independent contractors to develop skills and capabilities (and also help them to negotiate good independent contracts) and to help them to access the work where it is available.
This calls for government to understand and work with the organisations that represent the self-employed – who have been for so long the virtual bystanders in a game carried out by business and representatives of permanent employees (trades unions and staff associations).
There may well be no repeat of the Swing Riots in the 21st Century but as inequality of income and wealth become progressively worse, it is critical that we ensure that inequality of opportunity for all those who want to work but may decide (or have it decided for them) to work as independents is minimized. This can be done by enabling training in skills and enhancing the networks of opportunity for them.
Independent working can be entirely fulfilling but the old (Ed Miliband?) mindset needs to change to the way the world is working in the 21st Century and to maximize the ability of the self-employed / Independent worker to achieve success in this changing (and uncertain world).