Unions, Outsourcing and Work

But what is the role of a union in the 21st century workplace? 
Do employees need protection, and if so, what form should it take?
Why do they still speak about “labour” and “workers”, not “talent”?
Are the unions protecting member interests or their membership fee base? 

It comes to the fore, when the O word is mentioned by management. I’m referring to outsourcing, not Oprah.

In plain speak; outsourcing is about one company turning over their work to another company, for less hassles, and more profits. Less hassles: no staff, no unions, no technology upgrades. More profits: do what you do best and outsource the rest.

In recent months, two high profile companies pursued the outsourcing route and were thumped back to their HQ gates. Telkom wanted to restructure through their “capability management project”, outsource and move +/- 70% of their workforce off the payroll. That plan has an engaged tone until April 2009, spurred by opposition from government, Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) and the SA Communications Union (SACU). The loss making national carrier, South African Airways decided to outsource their call centre last year and was grounded on the runway – planned strike action by the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) during the festive season would have erased millions off the bottom line. The strike was called off at the last minute, much to the relief of passengers and taxpayers. Outsourcing stays on the runway.

The unions need a crash course on competing in the global economy, business models and talent management. The reality is that SAA and Telkom are bloated, inefficient organisations, urgently in need of a radical make over. If these companies are stopped on the outsourcing track, it will lead to further losses down the line, massive retrenchments and taxpayer bail outs.

The unions are fighting the wrong battle. Instead of fighting the O word, as an effective business strategy, they must bring their organisation and members up to speed in the new work economy. Don’t promise job security and lifelong employment. Rather, promise work opportunities for members that manage their careers, develop their skills and demonstrate high performance. Miners and call centre staff included. Identify opportunities, anywhere in the world for your “talent” membership. Negotiate fiercely with employers and outsourcing providers for premium pay, training and working conditions. Union members will be better off in the long run and non-members will be queuing up to join.

You know that are working in South Africa when..

1 When you don’t expect it* to work the first time (past failure is a guide to future failure)

2 It doesn’t work the first time (meeting expectations in (1)

3 Each year you pay more, for it not working. (something about the cost of fixing the past failures)

4 Everybody seems to be working, until you look closer at what they actually do (unless you can’t find them at work)

5 You watch others getting paid for not working and then getting paid more (those flawed performance appraisals)

6 Those that are working, want to work somewhere else (half of the workforce?)

7 You know somebody, who knows somebody, who knows somebody, that can give you work, if you know what I mean.

8   The best places to work, don’t always work out for the best.   

9 You are reading this on work time

10 Everything is urgent today, next week and 3 months from now.

* It = getting a telephone line, applying for a bond, reporting sewerage on the street,  bus schedules, buying car insurance, visiting the IEC website, returning a faulty product…

(HR Future, February 2009)

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