This post is also available in: Japanese
Britain is going through another “winter of discontent”, of multiple strikes. The description comes from a soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard III and has been used whenever social or political unrest coincides with dark, cold, wet British winters.
I remember the last, most famous “winter of discontent”, of 1978/9, when there were widespread strikes against government imposed wage restrictions. It was a year or so after my family returned from five years in Japan. Britain felt very inconvenient and full of conflict after the smooth-running life we had in Japan.
One of the positive impacts that Japanese companies such as Nissan and Toyota had on the UK in the 1980s was to introduce multi-skilling and one company union representation in return for more secure jobs with better working conditions. Many other companies adopted these practices and for decades we had far fewer strikes and disputes.
It feels like we have regressed back to the 1970s. This time the disputes are primarily about pay but also changes to working practices, and a worry that these will lead (or have led) to worsening working conditions and insecure employment.
For example, the rail union is concerned that driver-only trains, where the driver has to operate the doors as well as drive the train, will lead to compulsory redundancies. The rail management are saying that there will still be staff on the train, but they will be able to focus more on passenger safety and ticket inspection, if they do not have to operate the doors as well.
I recently travelled into London on an airport bus (because the trains were on strike) and observed the driver of the bus having to load everyone’s suitcases, check everyone’s tickets and then drive the bus. All tickets had a QR code, but he was checking them manually. Although the digital ticketing system could tell him where passengers were going and where passengers needed to be picked up, he still double-checked our itineraries with us. It seemed to me he was having to do too much, without supporting technology, so missed the fact that one passenger had booked a different bus, and he also placed some of the suitcases in the wrong part of the luggage hold.
A recent exposé of the UK warehouse of a large online fashion chain revealed similar problems. Employees had a heavy monitor strapped to their wrists telling them where they had to go next. The monitor would also alert managers when an employee was not hitting their targets. Yet the employees were having to walk the equivalent of a half marathon during a gruelling 12-hour shift. This is despite the fact that there are robots which can do a similar job, as I saw in a vast Honda warehouse in Belgium, nearly 30 years’ ago.
British technology investment has been very short term, focused on cutting labour costs rather than looking at how technology can be used to improve people’s working lives. I hope Japan’s digital transformation fares better, and that again Britain can learn from it.
This article by Pernille Rudlin first appeared in Japanese in the Teikoku Databank News in January 2023
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