Non Unionised Workers Are More Vulnerable To Abuse At Work

9 December 2007 In a new publication from the Institute of Employment Rights – Anna Pollert, a Professor of Sociology of Work at the University of West of England – links the decline in the numbers covered by a union agreement with an increase in the vulnerability of workers. Pollert argues that ‘individualising’ work problems and ‘externalising’ possible solutions both fail to address the problems of isolated, vulnerable workers.

9 Dec 2007| News

9 December 2007

In a new publication from the Institute of Employment Rights – Anna Pollert, a Professor of Sociology of Work at the University of West of England – links the decline in the numbers covered by a union agreement with an increase in the vulnerability of workers. Pollert argues that ‘individualising’ work problems and ‘externalising’ possible solutions both fail to address the problems of isolated, vulnerable workers.

Undertaking research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council , Pollert interviewed low-paid, non-unionised workers. Each worker had experienced problems at work, had failed to resolve them through workplace procedures and had then approached a Citizen’s Advice Bureau for help. Her insights reveal vulnerable workers’ isolation and the obstacles they face when attempting to resolve grievances. They put flesh on the author’s wider survey of low-paid, non-unionised workers with problems at work, which found that 47 per cent had no conclusion to their problems, and only 18 per cent had a satisfactory outcome .

The ‘lived experiences’ included in this report are based on telephone interviews conducted across England. These include summary dismissal (Tina), forced redundancy and resignation (Chitra), prolonged bullying and victimisation (Pat), unpaid wages (Graham), no paid-holidays (Iqbal), sexual and racial discrimination (Penny, Lawrence), dismissal during sickness (Mark), unlawful changes of contract (Jean) and dismissal during takeover (Terry). Workers experienced frustration, anger and suffered financially, physically and psychologically. Many were forced to take time off work through stress-induced mental illness and were unable to pursue their grievance until well enough, losing time as well as the mental stability to continue a fight. As the author says:

Experiences ranged from crude employer abuse of rights to sophisticated, protracted harassment

Industries with the worst problems included pubs, hotels, restaurants, care-homes, cleaners, security companies, small shops, hairdressers and small factories.

However, several of the cases quoted also came from large companies, some of which had their own “Human Resource” departments. According to the former DTI, the absence of a HR department is a “risk indicator” on vulnerability. However, this study found that for those unorganised workers facing isolation and vulnerability in large organisations, HR managers initially appeared to uphold ‘good practice’, but ended closing ranks with managerial subordinates.

According to the author, one of the weaknesses in “externalising” solutions is that none of the problems experienced by workers were “simple”:

They were part of wider, poor employment practices mediated through intimidation and workplace power politics, which an external organisation, such as the CAB, found it difficult to challenge because of problems of proof. To prevent the problem, the entire ensemble of working conditions required intervention. The outside, remedial approach selects individual employment breaches, and addresses the most simple. The reluctance of advisors, particularly non-specialists in employment law, to pursue complex constructive dismissal cases, which usually indicate a medley of bad practices, may also have increased following the 2004 Tribunal Regulations, which extended the risk of court-costs to advisors

Pollert argues that New Labour’s emphasis on individual rather than collective rights, the minimalist way those rights have been introduced and the restrictions placed on the enforcement of those rights by Employment Tribunal Regulations have all weakened the position of the most vulnerable still further.

According to Anna Pollert: External remedy is weak unless it empowers workers and collectivises their problems – which the approach of the current government avoids. Union organisation and collectively agreed terms and conditions of work have been shown historically, and continue to be, the only long-term solutions to eliminate vulnerability. Enforcement of employment rights needs to be backed by the threat of collective power

Carolyn Jones, Director of the Institute of Employment Rights said:

The living examples used in this report testify to the crisis in support for vulnerable, unorganised workers. External, individual remedy is no substitute for union representation and organisation which can prevent injustice rather than attempting to rectify it in a piecemeal fashion

Pollert welcomes the fact that the government, in its 2006 policy statement ‘Success at Work’, is now addressing the existence of ‘vulnerable workers’ but says the policy fails to address its fundamental source – isolation: ‘Enforcing individual employment rights is vital. But doing so with external remedial bodies alone reinforces the individual nature of the problem and does nothing to challenge the neo-liberal policy paradigm.’

Pollert notes that most of the people interviewed felt that union representation would have helped but that fear and ignorance prevented them pursuing that route. To correct that situation Pollert suggests the government adopt a more collective approach to assisting vulnerable workers.

The representation gap and the need for greater union visibility and accessibility clearly came across. Organising isolated, vulnerable workers is the subject of the growing debate on union revitalisation, which includes creating ‘community unionism’ and finding fresh means of union organising both within and beyond the workplace

To meet these challenges unions require further legislative support. The government needs to simplify the UK’s current complex union-recognition procedures and adopt the revisions proposed by the ILO Committee of Experts in March 2007, including removing the exclusion of small workplaces (less than 21 employees) from the union recognition legislation and removing the loophole in the law which allows employers to sign-up to in-house company unions which prevent applications for recognition by independent unions.

To regenerate collective bargaining at workplace level she also suggests the duty on ACAS to promote collective bargaining at work (repealed by the Conservative government in 1993) should be reintroduced, providing both a positive help to unions and a symbolic gesture to workers.


  • The Unorganised Vulnerable Worker: The Case for Union Organising by Anna Pollert is available from the Institute of Employment Rights, The People’s Centre, 50-54 Mount Pleasant, Liverpool, L3 5SD. Price £6.50 trade unions £20 others.
  • Anna Pollert is a Professor of Sociology of Work at the Centre for Employment Studies Research, Bristol Business School, University of West of England, Bristol.
  • The report was based on report undertaken with the support of ESRC Grant R000239679 ‘The Unorganised Worker, Routes to Support and Views on Representation’, 2003-2006. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research relevant to business, the public sector and voluntary organisations. The ESRC’s planned total expenditure in 2007/08 is £181 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at
    Further details at
  • For further information or to arrange an interview with the author, please contact:
    Press Office: University of West of England: 0117 32 82208
    Carolyn Jones, Director, Institute of Employment Rights: 07941 076245