Our assumptions about work and workers

Yesterday I posted about sexist discrimination in the workplace, and noted:

So there’s the gendered, identity-politics side of the argument. But there’s a slightly broader set of assumptions in play, around work and workers, regardless of gender – and my thoughts on that got a liiiiittle bit long, so tune in tomorrow.

And here it is! Am I not a beneficent goddess?

We make a lot of assumptions about the nature of work, and our – really, employers’ – expectations of workers. You see the sharp end when people refuse to hire women because of course they’ll have kids and of course this will be a massive drain on the business.

But those memes are just the sexist subset of assumptions we make about work and workers. And those assumptions hurt us – workers, society, and business.

(I will note a lot of this post focuses on pretty middle-class notions of work – permanent/fulltime/office-based, and this does not nearly cover all types of work and workplaces.)

Workers are “an investment” as opposed to “people”

A common complaint from employers who want to be allowed not to hire women is that they’re the sexist pigs real victims here. It goes, “I put all that time and money into training someone, then they leave and I don’t get any benefit from it!” Or “it’s too hard to train someone else up when women go on maternity leave!” Or “why should I pay women equally if they’re not going to stick around?”

As I covered yesterday, this “logic” doesn’t fly. Men aren’t guaranteed to “stick around” either – welcome to the generations Y and Millennial, who don’t plan on stepping straight from school into a life-long career with one employer.

Plus, you’re paying people for the work they’re doing now, not the promise of future work – unless you own an American sports franchise and are in the habit of signing people to ten-year contracts.

Besides, what’s the problem with having multiple people who are skilled and equipped to do your work? Heck, if someone goes on parental leave and you train up someone new and awesome to do the job, you have more options, don’t you?

The parent doesn’t want their job back – you’re covered, and don’t need to panic about handover. They’re both so productive you expand the team – isn’t growth a good thing? Or they agree to job-share, and now you’ve got back-up if one takes sick leave – whether it’s for their children or not!

Maybe the new person goes off to another great job, upskills even further, and comes back some day to add even more value – because they remember how you gave them a chance.

Actually, workers are an investment. Treat them well, develop their skills, and long-term you’ll reap the rewards. The real problem is that a lot of employers are just bad at investing.

All jobs must be 40-hours-a-week and flexibility is too difficult

This isn’t just about women, and it’s not just about parents. I know plenty of childless dudes who are night owls. They’d love to do their eight hours from 5pm to 2am, or work Sunday to Thursday, or ten hours/four days a week. Or work 35 hours. Or 20 or 30 as a job-share.

They’d be happier, healthier, and way more productive. The financial benefits would be huge. The social benefits in terms of job creation, prosperity, health, community would be revolutionary – and happy, prosperous societies are good for business too.

But a lot of us in desk jobs are churning out 8 hours a day, Monday to Friday … if we’re lucky. When the boss is putting in 60+ hours, there’s pressure to stay longer. When you’re billing in 6-minute increments, taking a full lunch hour means wasting 50 billable units every week.

Then there’s management anxiety. How many managers say “I need you to be in the office when I’m in the office” or “I need you to look busy when the senior manager comes around”? Or freak out because you leave at 4:55 to get a quicker bus home?

The assumption is that workers are inherently lazy (that’s why we have to force people off the dole) and won’t do good work without someone standing over them. Or anything which isn’t “core work” (a great rightwing “bureaucracy busting” meme) is a waste of resources – god forbid you stop for a cup of tea and the Five Minute Quiz to refresh your mind and build relationships with your co-workers.

We’re all meant to be lean mean cogs in the machine, individuals competing against each other, so there’s the assumption that sharing jobs and knowledge is a bad thing. After all, if Jo and I share a client list, and I work Monday-Wednesday and Jo works Thursday-Saturday, Jo might steal all the credit and get a bigger bonus!

Or, not pitted against each other, we could both be relaxed and fulfilled, we could juggle days if one of us (or our kids!) got sick and our clients would get great service. I’m sure there’s money to be made in that somewhere …

Managing people is haaaaaaaaaard

This always gets me, as a unionist. The myth that it’s too difficult to manage people’s performance, which is why bosses like Peter Talley need the power of summary dismissal without appeal.

I’ve never been a people-manager. But I’ve had good ones, and terrible ones. The good ones did bizarre things like sit down, set goals, and check in regularly to see how I was going. The bad ones were “too busy” to have regular meetings which usually resulted in some workers (funnily enough, not the parents) doing poor jobs and others burning themselves out to get the work done without seeing much reward. Guess which teams had higher churn?

The quality of management in New Zealand workplaces is poor, and this affects productivity (which is the only thing that matters.) There could be many reasons for this. In my experience the worst managers were expected to do a lot of “front line” work, and were terribly managed themselves, always putting out fires with no time to actually manage.

Sometimes you wonder if self-preservation is at work. If some organisations stopped managing-by-crisis and took the time to develop the best ways to get results and how their resources should be deployed to support that, I suspect some bosses would find they were part of the problem, not the solution.

So instead of addressing the big issues, they jump to the quick and dirty solutions: firing people at will. Paying workers off in exchange for not taking annual leave or sick leave. Refusing to hire women.

And that’s how we get back to sexism, work and parenting. It’s so much easier to write off an entire gender group as “bad investments” than to really, fundamentally change how work works in New Zealand. It’s so much simpler to say “you have kids in daycare, you’ll take too many sick days” than negotiate flexible work hours or job-sharing.

I’ll end with a great irony: you know how daycares are “hotbeds of sickness”? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we, as a society, do not support parents, of any gender, to be at home with their sick children. If you have to be at this meeting and your partner cannot miss another day this month and both your parents are still working and little Jimmy has the sniffles, little Jimmy goes to daycare. The other kids at daycare get sick. Their parents get sick.

And that’s just great for profit and productivity.

The lie about productivity and wages

The Productivity Commission has a new report out which looks at changes in the labour income share, or LIS, from 1978 to 2010.

The labour income share is described in the report’s summary as:

The labour income share (LIS) measures the split of national income between workers who supply labour and the owners of capital.

To a non-economist like me, that’s pretty much “how much the workers are getting out of their work and how much is going to the boss.”

The media release is pretty cheery about our labour income share:

“Even though the LIS has fallen overall in the measured sector of the New Zealand economy, the evidence is that the real wages firms pay their workers increase more rapidly when productivity growth is strong”, says Paul Conway, Director of Economics and Research.

“Over time, growth in real wages paid by firms in the measured sector was strongest during New Zealand’s period of high productivity growth from the mid-1980s to 2000 and much weaker when productivity growth was lower. Higher real-wage increases are also more likely in high-productivity-growth industries.

It sounds great, superficially. When productivity growth is high, we get the “strongest” wage increases. It makes perfect sense: obviously employers – being pure rational economic actors – pay people commensurate to their productivity. If you work harder, you get paid more.

But take another look at that first clause:

Even though the LIS has fallen overall in the measured sector of the New Zealand economy

And look at this, from the summary linked to above:

The LIS has recently been the focus of considerable international concern that growth in real wages has fallen behind growth in labour productivity. When this occurs, the LIS falls as the share of national income going to labour decreases and capital receives a bigger slice.

That is to say: even though workers are more “productive”, their income hasn’t increased in proportion to their productivity.

They’re working harder, but not getting paid more in return for it.

But the Productivity Commission urges you not to jump to any hasty conclusions:

While this work is mainly about the split of the income “pie” across labour and capital, it is also important to keep in mind the growth of the pie as a whole. For example, if productivity growth is fast enough, real wages could still be rising at a reasonable pace even when the LIS is falling. To the extent that income has an important bearing on wellbeing, this may be preferable to an economy in which the LIS is constant because real wages and productivity are both stagnating.

Ah, yes. Grow the pie. Ignore the fact your slice of it is shrinking in comparison to the bosses’.

There’s a bizarre implied threat there. Hey, workers, don’t get too antsy about the fact you’re not being fairly recompensed for producing more work, because you could be living in a dystopia where you get a fairer share but the owners are making less money!

So, what are the reasons for the globally-observed fall in LIS?

This fall in the LIS has been attributed to a number of influences, including new technology, globalisation and reductions in worker bargaining power.

New technology isn’t the problem – of course when you put Ellen Ripley in a power loader she shifts more stuff for the same effort – but “globalisation” and “reductions in worker bargaining power” are pretty telling. That means: we’re making more money exploiting labour in the developed world. That means: we smashed the unions so you have to settle for what your employer deigns to offer.

The Productivity Commission opines that this report “underline[s] the need for New Zealand to have a resilient and flexible economy which can adjust to new technology and help workers adapt to new jobs. The emphasis needs to be on adapting to change, rather than resisting it.”

But who else talks about making the economy more “flexible”? The National government, while pushing through law changes which undermine worker bargaining power.

I’m going to go with the PSA, which takes a different view:

Report confirms workers need a pay rise.