Author Archive

Frederick Guy

Frederick Guy is an economist teaching in the Department of Management at Birkbeck College, University of London. His book, The Global Environment of Business, is published by Oxford University Press.

John Lewis’s outsourced cleaners are striking for a living wage. You might be inclined to file that under obvious – where in the world are cleaners not outsourced and underpaid? With John Lewis, though, it points to an important general problem with the viability of employee ownership of businesses (for readers outside Britain, the John Lewis Partnership is owned by its 81,000 employees; it is a successful operator of department stores and supermarkets, and its annual profit-sharing bonus for employees is widely reported in the media). Since the 1950s, economists have speculated that a profitable employee-owned business would not grow as much as the same business would if it were owned by capitalists, because the incumbent workers would not want to dilute their individual shares of profits by adding new worker-owners. This argument is known as the Illyrian Model, for reasons to do with the name of a province of the Roman Empire and the practice of worker-self management in Communist Yugoslavia, but that’s a story for another time. Within a capitalist economy, workers who happen to own their business can try to have the best of both worlds. By hiring non-owner employees whenever an opportunity for growth presents itself a two-tier system is produced – owners and non-owners – and this has been widely seen as leading to the degeneration of the worker-owned company, marking its gradual descent into capitalist ownership. Notice that the Illyrian model is both a prediction about the fate that will befall worker-owned enterprises (they will either stay small, or stop being worker-owned), and an explanation for why worker ownership is not more widespread. John Lewis has long been seen as an important counter-example to the Illyrian model, a case which casts doubt on the economists’ gloomy prediction.