Public Ownership and Promoting Decent Work

“We can cut the ground from under the profiteers.”

Last month I had the pleasure of speaking at an event about public ownership with the American writer Thomas Hanna.  His work is a really important contribution in showing the surprising extent and popularity of public ownership in the US. 

A key point from comparing the UK with other countries is that it shows what an extreme outlier the UK is in regard to privatisation.  A phenomenal 40% of the total value of assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996 were in the UK.

As a union of course we know the negative impact on employment quality and pay that comes with privatisation and outsourcing.   We also know the impact of privatisation on our daily lives – how we have to keep paying out to big financial interests just to keep warm, to drink water, to get on the bus – essentially just to live in the UK. 

But the tide is turning against outsourcing. Public criticism of privatisation is only on the rise after the high-profile collapse of Carillion, and we now have a Labour front bench team that are doing some great work on models of public ownership. 

An expansion of public ownership needs to be a key part of policies aimed to make the UK a more democratic and equal society.  We can also help to create the conditions where public authorities choose to keep services in-house by promoting quality employment in goods and services that are currently outsourced or procured by public authorities.

To this end, UNISON North West has worked with the IPPR North on their new report 'Decent Work'.  The report was funded through the UNISON campaign fund.  The report shows that the financial and legal barriers to councils taking an active interest in employment conditions in outsourced services are often overstated and can be overcome.  The report includes a useful checklist for councillors on what they can do to promote good employment in the delivery of council services. 

We have some excellent recent examples of working with local authorities to improve standards of employment amongst outsourced providers. In Stockport and Manchester, councils have insisted that commissioned social care providers pay their staff at least the real living wage of £9 an hour. And let’s not forget the six North West councils who have now signed up to the Ethical Care Charter, enshrining higher standards of employment and service quality in the commissioning process.

We know from experience that private outsourcing firms make their profits from attacking the pay and conditions of workers.  If councils and other public authorities can be persuaded to insist on high employment quality in the services they commission, we can cut the ground from under the profiteers.

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