A new voluntarism in British employment relations

Private voluntary regulation by employer forums

Philippe Demougin, Cardiff University

Voluntarism is a distinctive trait of British employment relations. During the post-World War II decades, the traditional or ‘old voluntarism’ was at its height which referred to the voluntary regulation of employment relations by employers and labour unions without state interference through direct legal sanctioning or labour law regulation. This paper argues that a ‘new voluntarism’ has emerged in the United Kingdom (UK). This is the private voluntary regulation through so-called: ‘employer forums’. Employer forums are collective employer bodies that began to emerge during the 1980s and which primarily focus on improving social and labour standards of different groups of employees in the workplace. One example is Business in the Community (BITC) which is concerned with corporate social responsibility (CSR) and responsible business. It aims to positively shape and influence the impact of British businesses on the environment, society, the marketplace, the community and the workplace. Employer forums engage in private voluntary regulation through certification, benchmarking, awards, training, consultancy and social codes of conduct, which assist employers in implementing legal requirements but regularly exceeds them. We argue that these collectivist bodies represent a new form of voluntarism which functions differently from the old form, but nonetheless connects in significant ways to the broader voluntarist tradition in UK employment relations. While traditional collective bargaining continues to exist, albeit in a much diminished form (Brown et. al, 2009), we argue that the new voluntarism by employer forums is an additional institutional ‘layer’ (Streeck and Thelen, 2005), which adds in a distinctive way to the tapestry of private and public labour regulation in the UK. Both forms, the newer and older, connect to the voluntary tradition in employment relation that can be observed in the UK, however are less common in other countries. In this article we review the literature on the older voluntarism through the lens of four key analytical dimensions, namely: origins, elements and characteristics, role of the state and scope. We then establish and substantiate the new private voluntary regulation through an examination of eight employer forums based on multi-method qualitative research. Our four analytical dimensions are then used to compare and contrast the old and new forms of voluntarism, and to establish what is distinctive and significant about the private voluntary regulation by employer forums.