Home > austerity, public sector > Is there such a thing as a ‘good employer’?

Is there such a thing as a ‘good employer’?

Asking for a friend.

The concept of surplus value is well known: a product costs the employer £5 to make and sells for £10 – the ‘profit’ is the surplus value gained from the workers, not any so called hard work on behalf of the employer. And so, in order to make more profits to avoid tax on, workers’ wages, terms and conditions are driven down as far as possible.

But what about when there is no product to sell, just services to provide? Surely those employed in public service aren’t subject to the profit motive? Tell that to the consultancies being paid millions as they advise health trusts, local authorities and virtually every public office how to slash, burn and drive to ‘improve efficiency’ and meet arbitrary targets – these experts who know nothing about how and even why such services are essential, but just the value of a well presented Powerpoint and accurate spreadsheets.

Everything must now be justified in financial terms – housing associations are talking of allocating properties based on financial status not need; libraries must generate revenue streams; targets must be met.

The surplus value here is not financial, but human. As the managerialism that started creeping into public services under Thatcher and was accelerated by Labour reaches peak private sector ethos, the people who provide the services are told they must be more efficient, more innovative. They must ‘work smarter’ and do ‘more with less’.

The surplus value comes in terms of employees’ mental and physical welfare and in the huge amount of unpaid extra hours they work. In my workplace alone months’ worth of free time is given by me and my colleagues every year because it has to be if we want to do our jobs properly and well. And we do. One of my former housing colleagues would build up many extra hours on flexitime that they felt they couldn’t take as leave and so would lose those hours at the end of the month. This one person was giving their public service employer an extra week a month only to, like the rest of us, be subject to management emails warning of disciplinary procedures and capability assessments if targets we hadn’t been consulted on and new procedures that in practice impeded efficiency weren’t adhered to. In fact we can financialise this: the employers were gaining an extra £8-10k a year of free work from one person alone. Surplus value, indeed.

The reliance in public services on the goodwill of workers is massive but increasingly taken for granted – if a financial figure could be placed on it it would run into the billions. As workers in factories and shops rightly feel they are being exploited, that sentiment is growing among public sector workers. Chief execs and council leaders will blame government for the situation we find ourselves but then use the same mealy mouthed rhetoric as ministers to justify their actions. It’s all about the difficult choices.

Fear is the key. Fear of losing your job and being subjected to the whims and vagaries of an increasingly authoritarian welfare system. Transparency and truth are trotted out as being essential; whistle blowing policies are put in place but the reality is that employment contracts are nooses around our necks and the gallows loom at any sign of dissent. This is not a call for better treatment of public sector workers but for all workers – the neoliberal lie of austerity affects everyone. We are all the precariat now.

Categories: austerity, public sector
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