LEADING ARTICLE: Welcome back, Stakhanov

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The Independent Online
A SOVIET miner may seem an unlikely hero for Britain in 1995. But as the nation returns to work after its midwinter break many employees will be trying to impress their bosses by emulating Aleksey Grigoriyevich Stakhanov. In 1935, he mined 102 to ns of coal in one shift, prompting a Soviet propaganda drive to persuade workers to exceed their production norms. Those who responded were known as Stakhanovites.

We are all Stakhanovites now. When did you last hear complaints about the British workman's tea-break or the executive's afternoons on the golf course? When did a trade union last achieve a reduction in hours or an increase in holidays for a significant number of workers? Fifteen years of de-layering and rationalisation - the jargon words for putting people out of work - have changed the British culture. Increasingly, we recognise in ourselves The Organization Man, described by the American commentator William H Whyte nearly 40 years ago. "In almost all companies," wrote Whyte, "the five-day week is pure fiction . . . Work is dominant. Everything else is subordinate." But at least the executives that Whyte talked to felt guilty about it and their companies paid lip-service to the importance of leisure and family life. Now, the prevailing ethos regards workaholism as next to godliness.

At the root of all this, paradoxically, is the scarcity of work. From the wider social viewpoint, it makes sense to spread the available work among as many people as possible. But this makes no sense at all from the employer's viewpoint. It is far easierand cheaper to pile more and more work on to fewer and fewer individuals, knowing that fear of the dole queue will minimise resistance. Human beings, after all, are just another resource - an attitude eloquently expressed by the fashion for re-naming personnel departments "human resources" - and an expensive one at that. For most modern companies, higher production requires higher technology, not higher levels of employment. Sacking people is a sure way to cut costs; employing p eople, by contrast, maydeliver only marginal and unquantifiable increases in quality.

A few warning voices have been raised. The Health and Safety Executive is to tell employers to drop the macho management style of recent years and pay more heed to stress among their workforces. Alistair Burt struck the same note some 18 months ago when,as a social security minister, he observed: "Too many companies and businesses demand outrageous time commitments from those who work for them, without thought of the damage to family structure." But why should any particular company bother about "family structure"? A company may well calculate that it is better off with people who have wrecked their personal lives (or never had any in the first place) and, therefore, have no competing claims on their time and energy. Why should it even bother that itsworkplace may be peopled, in Mr Burt's words, by "unhappy individuals"? When a social worker won an action against a county council for giving him a workload that drove him to a breakdown, lawyers recommended that, in futur e, employers should sack people who showed early signs of stress. This sounded heartless, but it was a logical response in the modern market economy.

Unemployment, family breakdown and increased stress must all have costs in the end, however. In some senses, we are already paying those costs in rising crime, violence and vandalism. No single company can be expected to recognise this. In the 19th century, many private firms could and did see the importance of social improvement - better sewers, clean water, shorter hours, for example - because they needed more workers and healthier workers to expand production. Not so the late 20th century company to which the "human resource" is marginal. This is why employment conditions cannot be left purely to the market and why our European partners are right to want better legislation on employment protection and why the British government is wrong to oppose it. But employers should bear another point in mind. The verdict of economic historians is that, though the Stakhanovites did succeed in increasing the quantity of goods produced, quality suffered. And the Soviet economy never really recovered.