Branch Secretary :

Unite – responding to employer bad behaviour in the pandemic

Below Sharon Graham outlines Unite’s approach to some of the key workplace challenges we are facing in the crisis. We reproduce this from the ‘Work Voice Pay’ website which also contains ‘bit size bargaining’ suggestions.


In the housing sector many employers seek to adopt pay benchmarking and below we include some pointers to how we can respond.



Sharon Graham


"Amidst the crisis, trends of bad behaviour are starting to emerge, but there is still reason for optimism"


At the beginning of the crisis many of us predicted that some employers would use the pandemic as cover to make cuts or impose detrimental changes with very little economic foundation. Firms such as Go-Ahead or BA who continue to turn a profit or have healthy underlying balance sheets, are still looking to save money on labour. And we are now at the stage where we are starting to see trends emerge.


COVID-19 has not just accelerated the use of New Technology but has also boosted the spread of ‘bad’ practices such as ‘fire and rehire’ and ‘pay benchmarking’. For example we have now seen firms in a number of industries use Section 188 notices to threaten their own employees with the sack if they refuse to sign up to drastic cuts.


There is also a noticeable rise in the use of consultants such as Willis Towers Watson by employers who want to restrict collective bargaining under the guise of empty slogans like ‘market rate’ or ‘benchmarking’. Some employers are now pointing to ‘pay surveys’ as evidence to try and cut the pay of workers in many occupations. This data is never official and usually compiled by the ‘consultant’. But still the employer will pompously demand agreement for the ‘market rate’ to be adopted. This can lead to significant pay cuts, freezes or ‘red circling’. For Unions this whole concept is a nonsense. The ‘market rate’ or ‘benchmark’ are nothing more than arbitrary figures. Our interest is to fight for what our members deserve not go along with twisted logic. If we all agreed to the market rate then the ‘rate’ would just get lower and lower.


Of all the ‘dodgy’ practices perhaps the most worrying has been an increase in the number of examples where our Shop Stewards are being targeted by their employers. There are now several instances in the bus industry and this should be a cause for concern for all reps.


Work, Voice & Pay is alert to the trends and we will continue to make sure that our Shop Stewards have access to what they need, whether that is template agreements like H&S during COVID-19, the new homeworking agreement, the new Digital Agreement Builder (launching next week), or the development of Crisis Leverage. Unite is ready to push back bad employers and to ensure that our Shop Stewards are equipped as new employer tactics emerge.


In solidarity, Sharon Graham, Unite Executive Officer


Bitesize Bargaining


Benchmarking Pay

Many reps are being confronted with salary benchmarking data from external experts, such as Willis Towers Watson or Hay. It can be difficult to negotiate in pay rounds when HR claim they can prove you get more than the ‘market rate’. But it is important not to take these assertions at face value.

The ‘market rate’ is not the same as a fair wage

The ‘market rate’ for your job is only what other people are getting paid for doing similar work. It doesn’t tell you whether they are being paid what they deserve. It won’t reflect how much value the workforce is creating, nor how fairly the fruits of production are being distributed. It will just tell your employer how much they have to pay in order to stop too many workers leaving because they can get more elsewhere.

A vicious circle

When employers have more power than workers they can and do use it to suppress wages. Every employer engaged in undercutting on wages then drags the ‘market rate’ down a bit more. If other workers accept to be paid around the market rate, wages across the sector will always be depressed. History shows us that to get a fairer rate of pay, workers need to fight for and win better wages instead of just settling for what the market dictates.

What is the recipe?

Generating these ‘market rates’ involves making lots of assumptions and decisions about what to include and how to weigh different factors. If HR are paying for it they will probably have had some say in what data is being used and how. So, it is worth asking these questions about how the benchmarks were cooked up:

Which employers are in the dataset and why?

Some companies will only use data from their other clients who have filled in surveys. Some will only use companies within a certain radius from your site. So, have they missed out employers who are paying better rates of pay and should be in, or have they included employers that could be argued against? See if you can find examples of better compensation than you are being offered for similar jobs and check whether they are in the dataset.

Are these jobs really equivalent?

If you are being faced with salary benchmarking your jobs have to be compared with other jobs that are not exactly the same and may be very different. These comparisons will depend on job evaluations but were all these evaluations done properly? If you can get access to the data and information on which jobs are being compared to yours, you may find comparisons that can be called into question. If they won’t give you that data you should question whether you can trust their conclusions.

How are they accounting for rewards outside pay?

Salary benchmarking involves a similar risk of comparing apples and oranges in terms of rewards. While fairly straightforward when it comes to basic pay per hour, there are lots of other elements of what HR people call ‘total rewards’ that are harder to compare. If you count things like variable pay, pensions, health benefits, and even working environment, flexibility and unsociable hours it can get very complicated. So how are they pricing the ‘total rewards’ of other workers compared to yours?

Use other tools

HR experts admit that salary benchmarking is ‘more of an art than a science’ so there will always be questions about what kind of picture they are painting. If you are being offered a pay deal based on benchmarking you will also want to see how it compares with other information which can be used for judging pay levels. For example:

  • How does it compare with the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS)?
  • Is it a real terms pay cut or a pay rise compared with RPI?
  • What about ability to pay? If your employer is making money – are you getting your slice of the pie?


September 26 2020



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