Changing workplace could restore unions’ sense of purpose

syedThings are changing fast in the world of work – in response to advancing technology and social pressures.

Whereas many people of my parents’ generation worked for the same employer in the same sector for 30 or 40 years, this will become increasingly rare.

Even if people remain in the same line of work, it will probably not be for the same company. If it is for the same company, then it may not be under the same arrangement.

Fixed employer-employee relationships will increasingly be replaced by more flexible arrangements. In some firms, workers may well become self-employed contractors instead of salaried staff.

As newer disruptive technology emerges, some sectors may just decline, some may disappear to be replaced by others. Some may adapt…as must we.

As well as changing jobs and roles in the course of our working lives, we can also expect more people to pursue ‘portfolio’ careers. They will have multiple sources of income at the same time, possibly in very different fields and probably into later life.

So we will need to be serious about lifelong learning. We used to think an apprenticeship or degree would equip us with all the training and knowledge we would need to do a certain job for the rest of our working lives. Not any more. Even if we stay in the same job, it’s nature and skill requirements are likely to change.

This is where I believe trade unions and mutual societies still have a major role to play; by doing what they used to do so well, offering their members access to retraining programme, libraries, evening classes, health schemes and mutual savings groups.

Membership of trade unions has declined for many reasons. While some well-paid trade union bosses are seen as wanting to run the country or opposing change, many employees no longer see the relevance of membership.

The changing nature of work offers trade unions a chance to re-focus on the long term needs of their members. As people change jobs or become contractors, unions can advise them how to proceed. They have a history of helping working people and they need to find their true purpose again.

And what does the government need to do? First, government needs to get out of the way and not stand in the way of new, disruptive technologies – either by intent or accident. They must let new industries come forward. They should do what they can to make sure the same encouragement and climate for innovation is available outside London and the South East too.

But then government must think hard about those who lose out from this disruption and from globalisation. We cannot simply leave those who lose their jobs, especially in single-factory towns, to fend for themselves.

We must consider how we can create the space for trade unions, mutual societies and other cooperatives to offer advice and retraining to those who lose their jobs rather than leaving them to a life of benefits and job centre appointments.

Consider the worker who has been laid off by a company but is given a grant or a loan by a trade union to start up a business, along with training and support. Newly empowered entrepreneurs benefiting from this assistance are more likely to be open to retaining membership of a trade union and encouraging their staff to join a union too.

It would be wonderful to see government trade unions and cooperatives work together on lifelong support and training for our workers.

We Conservatives saved this country from the tyranny of the militant trade union leaders in the 1970s and 1980s. An even bigger challenge might be to save trade unions from irrelevance by encouraging them truly to serve their members throughout their ever-changing working lives.

Syed Kamall is Conservative MEP for London – you can find more on his website at syedkamall.co.uk