Back to the future work-wise

As if it’s not enough that the world of work is increasingly polarised by differences in earnings between the board room and the shop floor, UK managers are now being accused of being lazy and lacking a work ethic.

Ratan Tata, super-rich boss of the Tata Group which owns Corus and Jaguar Land Rover,  says that “in my experience nobody is prepared to go the extra mile, nobody”.

He went on to say that people weren’t happy about being in meetings that went on until 1800 when they had trains to catch and that on Fridays everybody cleared off at 1530. “In India if you are in a crisis you work until midnight. At JLR the worker is willing to do that but the management is not”. According to Tata these things don’t happen in China or Indonesia, Thailand or Singapore.

He then acknowledged that the new management team is different and does call meetings at 1700 (so why make the comments in the first place at a time when Corus is cutting 1,500 jobs in the North-East and a further 1,200 jobs are at risk?). UK managers may no longer claim to be working the longest hours, but it’s not uncommon for UK managers to be working at least 60 hours a week with all the health risks that entails. Most managers I know would love a better work-life balance.

Tata’s comments have been roundly criticised by the TUC and the British Chamber of Commerce whose director-general said “this is not a world I recognise… business owners and managers have been working all hours to get the job done. Nine-to-five is not part of the British culture”. Perhaps what is more worrying is that Tata is a member of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group, co-chairman of the UK-India CEO forum, and close to David Cameron.

The GMB National Secretary suggested that “Mr Tata should make sure he employs the proper people to make managers come up to the standards of the workers” and there were numerous letters to the press from hard pressed managers working long hours and then taking work home, consultants arguing for better productivity, and someone from India pointing out that managers in India have maids to look after their children and drivers to get them home, complaining about his comments. And perhaps he is forgetting that leadership starts at the top?

But he’s not the only boss criticising the workers lately. Andrew Rodda, Operations Director at the UK’s largest clotted cream manufacturer where they pay just above the minimum wage, was one of the delegates at the Institute of Directors’ annual convention who was critical of the TUC’s call for pay rises to stimulate the economy. He told the Observer that he thought people wasted too much of their hard-earned salaries – on things like holidays. Rodda, who has boasted in the past of his three holidays a year, thought that rather than pay workers more “there’s more to be gained from teaching employees how to manage their money more effectively than giving them more money to mismanage”.

Cornwall is one of the least affluent areas in England with average full-time earnings of £9.83 an hour compared with the national average of £12.63. Needless to say his comments provoked ire from many quarters not least the TUC which described the comments as a throwback to Victorian days.

If Rodda’s really want to control what workers spend their money on perhaps they should reintroduce paying their workers in tokens as in days of old in the Cornish tin mines. In many industries such tokens could only be redeemed at company shops where prices were often higher than elsewhere. (The practice was outlawed by the Truck Acts in the 19C).

And if employers really want to turn the clock back and cut the number of holidays employees are entitled to they could adopt the idea of holiday dismemberment. Bosses in Shanghai told workers that they had to work as usual on a Chinese national holiday on May 2. The managers revealed a scheme for compensating the workers which they called holiday dismemberment. Instead of receiving another day off in lieu the workers would receive a series of mini-holidays spread over the year.

The 8 hour shift, of 480 minutes, would be spread over the 252 days of the year “allowing staff to enjoy two minutes of holiday every day”. Staff were understandably unimpressed. The idea apparently came from a Japanese cosmetics company Shiseido. and it is not clear whether the idea is actually illegal. So remember when Tata says that we should be more like companies in the Far East what you might be faced with.

We are suffering a recession, due in part to reckless bankers who have been unaffected, and everyone is either working harder or making do on less income – if they still have a job. To suggest we revert to these ideas and working practices is suicidal. Workers have long memories and there will come a time when loyalty or lack of it will be repaid. What we need now is effective leadership and strong employee engagement, not 3rd world labour practices.

Updated 26 May 2011: Tata has just announced that profits have tripled. JLR made over £1billion pre-tax profit last year and saw revenue rise by over 50%.

3 thoughts on “Back to the future work-wise”

  1. I lived in Korea and China. I’m American, from Boston.

    I saw things like this:

    A subway line with over 40 stops built in 2 years, through the most expensive and densely populated parts of Seoul. In the West, nowhere could this be done; it was done under budget in Korea. Korea has western-style labor laws.

    That was just one feat of human engineering.

    They actually work in Asia. As in, work hard. They sacrifice families and every aspect of their lives for work.

    It’s the 19th century. Unfortunately, they also represent a much cheaper, a more reliable and a better employee and labor force than anything the West can manage. Even Germany has to import willing wage-slaves to perform the work lazy Germans don’t want to do.

    I’m not advocating a return to the 19th century, but there is a reality that will slap us all in the face unless we deal with it:

    Other countries word harder, longer hours, smarter, and better. There’s no discussion of “rights”. They’re more efficient and productive.

    Should you wish to complain, complain to history.

    being married to left-leaning rights-based labor practices will only blind you to the harsh reality that faces us.

    When China wants to take over an industry, they depress wages, cut every piece of red tape, make cheap investment funds available, and turn whole counties or provinces over to the production of one good. There’s no way for any laissez-faire, lefty-collectivist worker’s rights liberal society to compete.

    China may seem socialist: BUt it’s not. It’s a form of brutal, extreme state-driven capitalism with few to no worker’s rights.

    You can advocate for all the rights you want, here, but unless you come up with some new solutions:

    The only practical result will be unemployment and the evisceration of industries

    Oh, wait.

    Already there.

    1. I understand. When I was consulting with a footwear company in Lancashire a few years ago they told me that they used to make shoes and slippers there but it became cheaper to import them from Poland (in soviet times).

      Then it became cheaper to import from China although they were of inferior quality and many had to be rectified or have new trims added. They would be invited to China each year and told where to go to place orders. As you say factories and areas would specialise in different products so if they wanted leather soled items they went to x and if they wanted fur-trimmed they went to y.

      1. You also mentioned Germany which employed Turks as “guest workers”; Czech Republic employs Vietnamese in its car factories whilst its nurses go to work in Austria.

        But in these cases people are moving to improve their economic lot and not being told they have to work like Asian contract workers whilst the companies trebles its profits.

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