Leading Article: Railtrack trains can't run on Japanese lines

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The Independent Online
A LETTER from a Japanese businessman about the Railtrack dispute, published on this page yesterday, may have struck a chord with many readers. Our correspondent criticised the huge gap between the salary of signal workers and the chairman of British Rail, and complained that a 'layer of middle management' was to be unnecessarily inserted into the Civil Service while 50,000 more junior staff were to lose their jobs. His letter was a reminder that strikes such as that against Railtrack may be rarer than in the past, but British industrial relations are still far from exemplary.

There is a case for the aggressive hire-and-fire practices of American businesses. But without a well-functioning labour market, workers who are 'terminated' by one firm cannot quickly find work with another. In Europe, where long-term unemployment remains stubbornly high, the Japanese model of greater loyalty to workers therefore has great attractions.

Yet Japan's much-vaunted 'life-time employment' never applied to more than a minority of workers; temporary staff would be employed and dispatched with no more hesitation than in the US. Recession is now forcing Japanese companies to reconsider their employment policies, and to cast an envious eye across the Pacific at US practice.

It is facile, however, for British company chairmen to say that their employees are too inflexible to cope with the changes in their work that Japanese and American workers take for granted. Although Britain's trade unions have much to answer for - they have defended demarcations and resisted new working practices too vigorously, and often with disastrous results - the primary fault must remain with managers. If Japanese-owned car plants can achieve high productivity and industrial peace in the north of England, there is no reason why companies that are wholly domestically owned and managed should not follow suit.

Unfortunately, this offers few lessons to the managers of Railtrack. The greatest industrial triumphs of the Eighties have been in greenfield sites, where managers can establish the right atmosphere from the start. Japanese managers have not been conspicuously successful when brought over to run established businesses. When employees' grievances date back years or decades, there can be no quick fixes.