Questions of ownership and shareholder rights within the corporation are central to the contemporary challenges faced by workers in realising basic labour rights.
The contract of employment, with its assumption of a single ‘unitary’ employer has become increasingly anachronistic in a world of work characterised by outsourcing, franchising, complex corporate groups and long supply chains. Yet whilst ‘the employer’ may be vanishing across fragmented legal entities, the economic beneficiaries are ever more concentrated.
The contemporary global economy is characterised by enormous corporate power and the growth of monopolies. Mega-firms dominate multiple sectors, utilising business models which externalise responsibility for fair pay and employment rights. As much as 80% of world trade and 60% of global production is now captured by the supply chains of multinational companies, whilst the majority of supply chain workers face insecure jobs, poverty wages and long hours. The rising concentration of corporate power impacts directly upon working conditions as mega-firms appropriate a growing share of the fruits of production.
Barriers to worker voice in the UK
UK labour rights have long been shaped by assumptions of shareholder ownership. Corporate law constructs a proprietary monopoly over decision making, with the right to control corporations vested solely in shareholders and managers as their ‘agents’. As such, the scope of collective bargaining rights has been kept within narrow parameters, and statutory provisions for employee voice have failed to function effectively.
Whilst the debate around ‘stakeholder’ rights in corporate governance has continued on the fringes since the late 1990’s, corporate governance reforms have consistently enhanced shareholder power. Responses to corporate failures such as Carillion have focused on enhancing investor oversight and ‘stewardship’, through soft law mechanisms and voluntary standards.
In an era of financialisation, the structure of shareholder rights in the corporation has exposed companies and those who work within them to the disciplinary pressures of global capital markets, with firms reduced to a bundle of tradeable assets in the process.
Aims of the Employment Rights and the Shareholder project
The ‘Employment rights and the Shareholder’ project proposes to explore these issues by putting questions of ownership front and center of the exploration of the contemporary challenges facing labour law and workers’ rights.
The project, funded by the North West Doctoral Training Centre, is conducted in conjunction with the Institute of Employment Rights, a think tank for the labour movement, and is jointly supervised between the University of Liverpool and The University of Manchester.
The research seeks to develop a detailed and schematic exposition of the relationship between corporate law and labour rights in order to understand the ways in which the contemporary challenges faced by the labour movement relate to questions of ownership.
Please feel free to get in touch if you are interested in the project. We are particularly keen to engage with labour movement organisations as part of the research.
Ben Crawford is conducting the ESRC studentship, and is currently a Phd candidate at the School of Law and Social Justice, University of Liverpool
Prof. David Whyte is Professor of Socio-legal studies at the University of Liverpool, and is the primary supervisor for the project.
Dr. Aristea Koukiadaki is Senior Lecturer at the School of Law, University of Manchester, and is the secondary supervisor for the project.
Carolyn Jones is Director of the IER, and is the CASE partner project supervisor