Sunday, February 17, 2013

Stoking The Fires Of Labour Reform

When I joined the great world of work, as in when I left school and had jobs before going to university or while at university, I gained considerable experience. It was experience I hadn't expected to gain, but it was useful nonetheless, as I experienced inefficiency, poor productivity, moonlighting and skiving.

There was the job as the toilet and restroom cleaner. An excellent job, one that enabled me to acquire communication skills with both factory and office workers who were to be found sitting around in restrooms. I didn't mind the conversations, but the chaps did rather get in the way of what I was doing. Despite them, and with no loss of quality, I cut the time it took to do the many toilets and restrooms from an allocated seven to five hours.

There was the job in the office of a government department - health and social security as it was then. It was a pre-computer task of processing that involved writing information onto cards that was taken from other cards. The task itself seemed inherently pointless, but I didn't of course question its necessity. I just got on with it. Rather too well and rather too quickly. One of the office lags took me to one side and suggested that I might slow down as my productivity was, erm, all a bit embarrassing for others in the office.

And then there was the nylon extrusion factory. This was a cracking job. Night shift, it paid very well and it also offered the best experience of the lot. Being a night shift, there was no obvious sign of management. There were a couple of supervisors, but their supervision was light to the point of non-existence. What stunned me more than anything was that around midnight on the first night I was there (the shift had started at eight), I suddenly realised that I was on my own. There was no one to be seen. Not initially. Only when I went hunting did I discover where everyone was. They were asleep in different parts of the factory. At around six o'clock (the shift ended at eight), they re-emerged. Meantime, I had been left in charge of a machine that required periodic attention from a forklift truck (material had to be lifted in order to then pass through the machine). I was not qualified to drive or operate a forklift truck. Indeed, I had never driven or operated one before.

The experience got even better. One of the supposed supervisors did supervise something. It was the going out and buying the fish and chips and beer. I said that the shift started at eight, and it did, but it was interrupted about an hour later for the evening's food and drink. The same supervisor, I learned, slept on the job because during the day he drove a van for another company. Indeed, on occasions, he would drive the van at night. He would clock on and then disappear.

These were experiences back in the good old days of the early 1970s. Perhaps similar experiences can still be had in British industry or government offices, though I somewhat doubt that they might be as extreme as certainly the latter one was.

I am reminded of these experiences thanks to what a correspondent of mine has told me about what a good friend of his discovered when he was visiting a large publicly owned facility in a major Spanish city that is due for privatisation. This good friend was on a fact-finding mission on behalf of a large private company that specialises in operating facilities of this type (I am not, you may appreciate, revealing the type of facility, the company or the city). This good friend went into the boiler room. The facility would demand significant boiler power. It now operates, as it has for some twenty years, on diesel and gas and will be computer-controlled. There were seven workers sitting around playing cards. He asked what they did. They were the stokers. The stokers!?

It would appear that, thanks to certain union regulations and other regulations applying to workers in the public sector, stokers, no longer needed and not needed for many years, are still on payrolls in Spain. There are, seemingly, hundreds, thousands of workers in the Spanish public sector who are paid to do nothing. Paid from taxpayers' money.

You can probably understand, therefore, why I was reminded of my early-work experiences. I have never hidden a certain contempt for Margaret Thatcher but this has not stopped me accepting that union regulations and what amounted to fraudulent working practices had to be put an end to. Labour reforms in Spain are causing pain, of course they are, but the stokers who have no coal to stoke highlight just how much further these reforms have to go. And people wonder why Spain has such poor productivity and competitiveness.

Any comments to please.

No comments: