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INTERVIEW | David Boys, Public Services International

In our APE Interview Series 2019, we meet high-level water experts to discuss the future of water and share perspectives on the upcoming challenges and solutions for truly sustainable water services. This interview is part of a six-part series, all of the interviews are available in Aqua Publica Europea's publication 'The Public Water Services of the Future'

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David Boys


David Boys, Deputy Secretary General, at Public Services International, exchanges with Aqua Publica Europea on unions' expectations and the relationships between public operators and their workers. 

1. From your point of view, what do you expect from public operators of the future, what would be good in terms of management practices within public operators regarding employees?

We look for political leaders and government programs that respect the rights to water and sanitation, and how governments bring together the tools to implement these rights, starting with the appropriate budgets, and governance tools of transparency, accountability and participation. Government austerity policies and privatisation conditionalities from the donors can really destroy the utility. As can nepotism, patronage and corruption in all its forms.

We also expect utilities as employers to respect worker rights, and to engage workers in planning and decision making, in full recognition of their experience and expertise. The ILO’s Decent Work Agenda and core principles outline what workers need. Workers do not like to be outsourced, underpaid, undervalued and disrespected.They want to be able to provide for their families and to have some security about where they will be working next year. They need the freedom to join a union and negotiate collectively. Outsourcing is a real poison, as it reduces staff to
poorly paid units of billable hours run by external corporations that are not committed to human rights.

After you have established conditions of respect with your members, it is about engaging: one of the best ways for management to engage the workers is through trade unions. The ability of the workers to associate and to bargain collectively and to have a range of discussions with managers through these unions is fundamental. We also found amongst our members that the recognition of their public service is as important as pecuniary considerations.

Future-looking labour and management should see each other as equals, to respect each other for what they do and to work together for the good of the community. Recently, a lot of senior managers, especially in the biggest utilities, come from finance and do not know the sector. Management then makes decisions based on financial and commercial bases as opposed to what is good for the community, for the citizens and for the workers.

2. About management and labour working together, can you give us a few more words about why the engagement of workers in the decision making of the public water utilities – in particularly through union representatives – is important for the sustainability both of the company itself but also of the environment and of the society? How is participation from workers a condition for the sustainability of water utilities both internally and externally?

Social sustainability means that workers should be able to sustain their families. This is typically achieved with collective bargaining and in respecting the core labour standards and the rights to join union and to bargain, which are preconditions. In a lot of countries this is not the case.

Then, in terms of the evolving workplace and better serving the community, the best examples are where labour and management are together responsible for setting the standards for training, skills acquisition and career progression. Adults better learn by doing, so how to link the daily workplace, which can be repetitive, with continuing education and skills acquisition? In some countries, we see that it is the workers and trade unions that set up the training schools, in some others, labour and management together set the technical standards. It is by getting to those levels of cooperation and of investment in your staff that you will have more engaged workers, willing to take risks. Workers are not willing to assume risk without a sense of being engaged and supported. This is especially true of occupational health and safety, when dealing with chemicals, with
repetitive stress, where workers reserve the right to refuse.

3. In water utilities, the skills needed are evolving. From your perspective is this also valid within an operator or is there something more or specific that needs to be done or addressed to avoid that part of the workers feel less and less relevant within the organisation?

If you are going to bring workers’ representatives onto the board of directors, as they have done in Paris, those workers need to be trained. Only the biggest trade unions will know how to do that. Sharing in decision making requires training and practice from all parties.

Every time that institutions talk about stakeholder consultation mechanisms, my first warning is that it takes time. However, decisions can be more solid and can lead to a better performing workplace. It can enable to anticipate and propose solutions that may not have been thought in management, by the political party or by the engineers. Therefore, the ability to connect the workforce and management with the people
being served is a worthwhile investment. Often we are behind our gates and there is too much separation.

If we consider the climate chaos and the need to adapt, it will require tools that are not available in all water utilities who will have to reach out across several disciplines and upgrade specialities to be part of bigger teams that are dealing with climate chaos.

Finally, we should highlight the importance of public-public partnerships, the water operator partnerships which enable to send teams of workers, who have possibly been doing the same work in the same environment for 20+ years, to a completely different environment and to engage them in
partnerships where they can both learn and teach, without feeling the pressure to sell their proprietary software or filtration units, but instead where they can effectively jointly solve problems. It is especially true when we look at inequalities among communities within the same country or across
borders, workers can get a lot of motivation to know that they are part of making the world a better place.

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