Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Outsourcing, TUPE and Organising

To most working people, outsourcing is seen as a threat. The "TUPE" regulations provide some protection, but don't adequately protect pensions in particular. Union representation during consultation over TUPE transfers is vital to ensure the rights and terms & conditions of employees are protected. Even so, many people ask why an employer would outsource work unless they wanted to wash their hands of the workforce as costs are driven down at their expense.

One of the strange things about being a union activist in the IT industry is that we are usually on the other end of the outsourcing equation. All the big IT companies increasingly offer services rather than products - they offer to run an organisation's IT functions for them - outsourced.

When groups of unionised workers are outsourced from other industries into IT companies, it is really helpful when the reps and officers dealing with the transfer make contact with the reps and officers dealing with the proposed new employer. They can often suggest questions to ask during the TUPE consultation or ring the alarm bells when the whole truth isn't being told. Making contact in this way is also the best guarantee that the workers transferring maintain and develop effective union organisation post-transfer. Ironically, one effect of outsourcing is to spread union organisation into many companies and sectors that were previously un-unionised. This is a flip-side to outsourcing that unions should make the most of.

Whereas in most industries, TUPE transfers are relatively rare, for reps in the IT industry they are among our bread and butter issues. Every time contracts are won and lost, groups of IT workers are shuffled around between the companies. In some IT companies it is actually a minority of the workforce who chose to work there.

Just as we need reps and officers in other sectors to be on-the-ball when staff are TUPEing into our sector, we all need to be on our toes when these TUPEs between IT companies take place. Usually there is already UNITE organisation in the receiving company, with reps who've been through it before. Often the contract changing hands involves more than one company, either when services are delivered through a consortium or joint-venture, or when a prime contractor sub-contracts much of the work. There is no excuse for us treating these transfers separately. We should all be comparing notes about the various employers, not allowing them to play us off against each other.

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