Wednesday, December 01, 2010

UNISON Community Conference 2010: Hidden Workforce project

This is a bit late but I am finally typing out my report to my union Branch on last month’s first ever Community Service Group conference.  Check out previous reports here and here about the mornings events.
During lunch there were two fringes for delegates to choose from.  One on the Personalisation Agenda (implications of the disabled and elderly controlling their own care budgets) and the other on UNISON Hidden Workforce Project.  I went for the Hidden Workforce fringe as I had heard about the project but wasn’t that sure what it was about.  The other fringe had sandwiches and coffee and was very well attended while ours did not and was not that well attended.  Purely co-incidental of course!
The project is a pilot funded by the last government (those were the days!) looking into ways to protect workers who provide public sector services but had been outsourced from the public to the private and voluntary sector.  In particular vulnerable groups such as migrant workers who are more susceptible to exploitation - such as not being paid the national minimum wage, 0 hours contracts and bogus self-employment.  In particular cleaners and kitchen staff in schools and hospitals.  However, it is not just about migrant workers - but anyone who has been outsourced (even me).
The pilot is looking at using technology so that members, new activists and stewards can keep in touch.  Especially mobile phones and text messaging. The number of Mobile phones exceed the population of the UK by 130% and 87% of people of all ages have mobiles.  Migrant workers in particular use mobiles. From the organising point of view if you have a credit card and access to the internet you could set up a texting communication service with a free text back facility in 15 minutes.   The approach in low union density workplaces is to concentrate on collective issues that affect everyone not case work.  New and potential members are told that “we can’t do this for you – you will have to do it for yourselves” (which must be difficult to tell people). Then build by campaigning, get a few wins and once density is built - go for recognition. 
I have some concerns about this model but pleased that UNISON is trying different things out.  We face a huge problem if we just do nothing.  At the moment 75% of public services are “in-house” and there is a 33% UNISON density.  In contracted out services there is only a 10% density.  If more and more services are contracted out and the 10% density remains the same - then do the maths for the future of the union. 

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