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Greer Ian (Greenwich, Great Britain)

Ian Greer

Ian Greer, born 1976, is Professor of Comparative Employment Relations and Director of the Work and Employment Relations at the University of Greenwich. He examines industrial relations, welfare reform, and market governance, mostly in the UK and Germany. The overarching issues of his research have been how market mechanisms are employed to reshape institutions and behavior, and how people resist.
He has worked at Greenwich since 2011, and he has also worked at Leeds University (2006-11) and Cornell University (2006-7); his PhD (2006) is from Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He has been a guest researcher in Aix-en-Provence, Berlin, Chemnitz, Cologne, Jena, and Sydney and has been a guest lecturer at the Arbeiterkammer Oberösterreich in Linz and at FORBA in Vienna. Prior to working in academia he worked in the US trade union movement.
He is principal investigator of Project TEMS, a four-year four-country ERC-funded project exploring the causal relationship between marketization, broadly defined, and increasing inequality in Europe. He is also involved in Marketization of Employment Services in European Comparison (MESEC) is a two-year three-country project, funded by the Hans Böckler Foundation exploring the effects of contracting on front-line work in active labor market programs. Two more projects he is working on examine public sector industrial relations and austerity, including one with the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) in the UK and one with Eurofound in Dublin. A final project, funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, examines trade union coalitions with civil society in the US and Germany.
His articles have appeared in Industrial Relations, British Journal of Industrial Relations, European Journal of Industrial Relations, Politics and Society, New Technology Work and Employment, Capital and Class, and WSI-Mitteilungen, as well as in edited volumes, including two chapters in Karin Scherschel, Peter Streckeisen, and Manfred Krenn (hrsg.) 2012. Neue Prekarität. Die Folgen aktivierender Arbeitsmarktpolitik. (Reviw in german on socialnet:
Ian Greer
Talk in Vienna, 25 April 2013, 30 minutes
My purpose here is to explain the situation in Britain to outsiders; as someone who has only lived in the UK for seven years and spent a fair amount of time in Germany, I think it needs some explanation.  I will make two main arguments and conclude with a question.

  • The first is that reforms in what could be called ‘unemployment policy’ are producing more misery for workers and the poor, but failing to achieve their stated goal of increasing employment.
  • The second is that British civil society is too fragmented and to shape the policy agenda.
  • Third, how do we slow, stop, or reverse the reform trajectory, rather than creating problems that will merely reinforce it?

The UK welfare state has been subject to pretty much constant incremental retrenchment over the past 30 years. Over the past five years, the two main groups targeted for ‘activation’ have been lone parents and the disabled; and there has been a general shift towards mandatory unpaid job placements (workfare) as well as a shift of existing welfare-to-work programmes into the hands of large multinational corporations (the work program). This has accompanied a rollback in spending on welfare benefits. Perhaps the most harrowing of these reforms have been aimed at the disabled. The government has introduced new benefits with much more restrictive eligibility criteria and shifted large numbers of disabled people onto Job Seekers Benefits. Not only is that less money (105.05 as opposed to 71.71 per week), but they also can be sent on to schemes such as the Work Programme. Terminally ill people are being referred to activation schemes and pressured into looking for work.
The effectiveness of these reforms in their own terms is highly debatable. In its first year, for example, Work Programme providers found sustained jobs for only 3.4% of those referred. This is well below the government’s initial estimates of the percentage of those who would have found jobs without the Work Programme (9.1%) and not a single contractor met this figure or the minimum performance requirements written into their contracts (10.2%).  
Why is this? First, their effects depend on forces that are outside of unemployment policy. More people on activation programmes find jobs if there is a rapid increase in the number of jobs and low unemployment than under today’s conditions of economic stagnation and high unemployment. Their effects depend, secondly, on how they are designed. Unpaid job placements or one-euro jobs do not increase employment levels, because they inevitably replace regular jobs and have stigmatizing effects that make it difficult to get real jobs when they are done. Forcing people into activation programs whose disability will make them impossible to place in work will make these policies fail.
So, the poor design of policies, combined with weak employer demand and cuts to benefits and public services, has produced policy failure and misery among workers and the poor. Welfare benefits will either be cut or their value eroded through inflation, claimants are forced into employment programmes or job placements under the threat of sanctions, and this in a sluggish job market in which low-wage employers are spoiled for choice. Insult is added to injury by the role of for-profit contractors in administering this system – with very well paid and publicly visible spokespeople – and the current proposal to use ‘in-work conditionality’ to force people in part-time jobs to increase their hours.   
Given these problems it is reasonable to expect resistance. Trade unions should oppose this because it is damaging to workers; charities representing the poor should oppose it because it is damaging to the disabled, children in poverty, and other vulnerable people; and claimants groups should emerge to protest the exploitation of the unemployed. And resistance has happened to some degree, but let me point to two limitations.
First, the more traditional and organized part of British civil society has been muted in its protests, for a number of reasons. For charities there is a problem that they depend on government funding, and they would jeopardize it if they protested against the programs that they are supposed to be delivering. For trade unions there is the problem that they support the Labour Party, which in many ways the lesser evil for them, but is as deeply committed to workfare and cuts as the conservatives are. So, organized interests do not really have an incentive to take a leading role in developing an alternative.
Second, claimants groups are isolated. They are in many ways effective in conducting direct action aimed at making the welfare system malfunction. One campaign has been to encourage claimants to not signing the data protection waiver that allows the state job centres from transferring personal information to external organizations with placements. A second, more publicly successful, campaign has been against employers using mandatory job placements – workfare schemes – by using picketing and social media to shame those employers who do use the scheme. All of this makes the job of administering the welfare-to-work system more difficult. But there are not the connections with the trade union movement, Arbeiterkammer, churches, political parties, and others.
There are some good reasons – practical and ideological – for this behavior. But the result is any oppositional force is very fragmented and therefore ineffective.
So, now you know a little bit more about the situation in Britain, and you can see why I am pessimistic. The current government is doing many things to make the country even more unequal and its class system even more rigid than it already is. Opponents of ‘activation’ are divided between those who want to influence policy and those who want to disrupt the administration of the system. Disruption is unlikely to work because the system is adept at quickly adapting itself to malfunctions; influence is unlikely to work because policymakers and public opinion favor pernicious policies. The question is how to slow, stop, or reverse the reform process.