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Referendum debate sparks new thinking on workplace relations

By Colin Lindsay - Posted on 4 April 2014

Dr Colin Lindsay, of the Scottish Centre for Employment Research within the Department of Human Resource Management looks at how the referendum debate is affecting workplace relations…

The debate around the Scottish referendum debate is currently big news in the UK, making headlines on a daily basis. From an academic point of view it’s an issue we’re also actively engaged with. Recent research I’ve been involved with between Strathclyde Business School and the University of Oxford found that the referendum debate is actually having a significant impact on workplace and employment relations in Scotland.

Published under the banner of the ‘Work, Employment, Skills and Training: Where next for Scotland?’ (WEST) project, the findings suggest that Scotland is taking a radically different direction to the rest of the UK as it looks to improve employment relations policies.

The research suggests the referendum debate’s provided a valuable opportunity for stakeholders in Scotland to review and reflect on policy and shape its future direction. Through the independence debate, Scotland is being presented the chance to discuss and re-think policy about workplace and employment relations in a way that’s not happening south of the border.

We’ve been working with the WEST project as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s ‘The Future of the UK and Scotland’ programme. This involved interviewing 45 senior policy makers from government, public sector agencies, education institutions, trades unions, employers, the STUC, and civil society organisations.

In education and training, Scotland has been diverging from England for some time. The setting up by the Scottish Government of the Working Together Review (‘The Mather Review’) to explore workplace innovation, productivity, enhanced opportunities to promote collective bargaining, and workplace democracy, is a further distinctive policy development.

Policymakers, employers and trade unions have identified high levels of youth unemployment as a key challenge currently facing Scotland. The scale of youth unemployment since the financial crisis and the shrinking proportions of young workers across public and private sector workplaces has been described as “catastrophic”, “a scandal”, “unacceptable” and “risking a lost generation”.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, it’s clear that it will be very difficult to abandon discussion of the new models of employment relations similar to those used in Northern Europe. This is not to say that they will remain uncontested, far from it, but a return to the status quo in debates on employment relations seems unlikely.

If economic matters are likely to influence how Scottish citizens vote on constitutional change, a better informed debate regarding employment and the workplace is crucial.

Do you think the referendum debate is playing an important role in shaping employment practice in your company or organisation? If not should it be? Let us know in the comments below…

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