Border control on Eurostar

October 11th, 2012

I’ve just been to Dresden by train, to attend a work-related conference. This, in many ways proved remarkably simple: travel down to London, take a 4pm Eurostar to Brussels, connect to a convenient Thalys train to Cologne, have dinner in Cologne and then take an overnight sleeper to Dresden, arriving at 7am the next morning.

My return journey went pretty well, too – I had an hour in Cologne to have some breakfast and then took a train back to Brussels in order to get the Eurostar. The border crossing between Germany and Belgium happens between Aachen and Liege, and the only thing that you notice is the beeps from people’s mobile phones as they switch to a roaming provider! If you’re a train nerd like me you also notice the brief flicker of the lights in Aachen station as they switch from German to Belgian electrical supplies (there’s a change of voltage AND frequency, how exciting!)

At Brussels South Station, I joined the queue for the Eurostar terminal. You queue first to scan your ticket on the automated gate, and then immediately join a queue for baggage security – there’s the usual bag x-ray and metal detector. Following this is outgoing Belgian border control, quickly followed by British border control. Just before the border control point, a door marked “Lille” allows passengers travelling to that city to skip the unnecessary border control – this is because Belgium and France are both in the Schengen Area which allows free movement without border control.
Finally, you reach the Eurostar lounge, which is actually a bit pitiful – a coffee shop, an expensive chocolate shop and some seating. But you only need to check in 30 minutes before departure, and the train usually boards 15-20 minutes before departure, so most people needn’t wait in the lounge for long.

Upon arrival at the still-fairly-shiny terminal at St Pancras, passengers queue down the platform and then onto a long escalator. At the bottom of the escalator the huge horde executes a brisk u-turn and joins… a British immigration queue! “But hang on”, I thought, “didn’t we do border control in Brussels?” I asked the border control officer (politely but firmly!) why they needed to check everyone’s tickets and passports again on arrival. It turns out that this is to do with Lille. I dimly recall a media hoo-hah a few years ago about immigrants getting into Britain on Eurostar, and this is the result. If you buy a ticket from Brussels to Lille, you are very likely to travel on Eurostar. Passengers travelling to Lille avoid border control, but no-one can actually guarantee that they leave the train at Lille –so some took advantage of this loophole to enter the UK without the necessary visa documents. The British press (predictably the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph) kicked up a fuss about this, and so the British border control agency attempted to close the loophole. Now, the problem is that the British authorities can’t legally interfere with passengers travelling between France and Belgium (in fact, an attempt to do this provoked a brief diplomatic row between the UK and Belgium, and the threat by Belgian authorities to arrest British border control officers in Brussels that attempted to do this!) and the Eurostar system was designed to make the border crossing as painless as possible when it first started. In fact, when Eurostar first began, the border checks were conducted on the train – but since a 2004 agreement, UK border staff have been stationed in stations in France and Belgium. The reason for this change is the perceived problem of political asylum. Under the terms of the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, and the 1950 European Declaration of Human Rights, persons persecuted by foreign governments may claim asylum when they arrive in a foreign country. This is a headache for the UK government, as it means that they’re obliged to decide whether such persons are genuine refugees or “undesirable” economic migrants. Because the asylum rules kick in as soon as your feet touch the soil, the UK government tries hard to keep potential asylum-seekers out – even more so because they could (and should) be claiming asylum in France or Belgium. So, in order to maintain the “fortress Britain” idea and appease domestic political audiences, the UK now perversely has decided engage in extra border checks at St Pancras. The joys. As I said to the German couple ahead of me in the border control queue at Brussels – “I’m terribly sorry that we didn’t join the Schengen Agreeemnt, but it’s politically unacceptable!”.

“Principles of Scientific Management”

October 1st, 2012

Summary for those not wishing to read 1000 words: a book published in 1911 and mostly concerned with the performance of men doing backbreaking physical labour continues to have a disconcerting influence on management today.

If you go to a bookshop, or surf through the pages of Amazon, you’ll find a colossal number of books for businesspeople. Most of these are about leadership and productivity – how to be better at your job and (often) how to get other people to do better at theirs. This blog post is about the grandfather of all of these books – “The Principles of Scientific Management”, published in 1911 by Fredrick Winslow Taylor.

Taylor was an American, a mechanical engineer, and had worked his way up from the shop floor. His book still shapes a lot of corporate thinking today, and yet very few people I meet have ever heard of him. Here’s a short summary of what he has to say.

He argues that the interests of employer and employees are in fact aligned – both should be interested in the continuing prosperity of the company: the employer in terms of dividend, the employee in terms of wages. He also points out that good management should help each employee find the work that best suits them, and help them develop their skills. However, his main point concerns the problem of “soldiering” as it was called in the US: workers in factories trying to do as little work as they can get away with during their working day. This practice was particularly widespread at the time – a culture developed amongst factory workers that greater productivity per worker would result in some staff being laid off (on the basis that the amount of work required was fixed) and that those that were able to work quickly should slow down in order to protect the jobs of those that could only work more slowly. Taylor points out that supply and demand economics generally means that higher workforce productivity results in lower sale prices and increased sale volumes, meaning that demand for the product actually increases, making more work, not less. In this regard, he is almost certainly correct! Taylor raises his voice against the trade unionists of the time, who were largely responsible for curtailing the productivity of their members. Of course, there was also an issue of fairness: if all workers are paid the same, why would you work harder than your colleagues?

Taylor goes a step further and notes that most workers could work faster if they needed to, but they try and conceal from their employers exactly how fast the job really could be done…

In the main part of the book, Taylor notes the lack of standardisation within most trades. This is logical – skilled workers at that time learned through apprenticeship, by copying an experienced master. Each had their own methods that they passed on to their apprentices. Taylor points out that in a factory with thousands of workers, standardisation of the best method must take place in order to achieve the best productivity. So, how do we do this?

This is the essence: study the methods using the tools of science – observation and experiment – to determine the best method. Teach that method to every worker, and train them to do it well. The management should “heartily cooperate” with the workforce to ensure that the work is done according to the method. Finally, “the management take over all the work for which they are better fitted than the workmen” ensuring “an equal division of labour between management and workforce”. By this last statement, Taylor means that all of the planning and organising of the work should be taken on by the management (whereas traditionally the craftsman worker would have done it himself). The idea here is to remove from the workforce the responsibility for determining how best to do their work – instead, they should do as they are told by the “planner” or manager.

Taylor illustrates his point by describing the work of pig-iron handlers in a steelworks. The pig iron handler “stoops down, picks up a pig weighing 92lbs (that’s 40kg), walks for a few yards and drops it onto the ground or on a pile”. He says “the work is so crude and elementary in its nature that the writer firmly believes that it would be possible to train an intelligent gorilla so as to become a more efficient pig-iron handler than any man could be.”

Taylor then goes into a long explanation of his “experiment” with the pig-iron handlers. He essentially determined that by having a manager stand over the workforce with a stopwatch, telling them when to work and when to rest, and (crucially) by paying the men more to participate in the experiment, he improved their productivity dramatically.

Most of the rest of Taylor’s book is taken up with the details of exactly how much work can be extracted from manual labourers. This is early ergonomics stuff – how big a shovel should you use to shovel coal?

At the end of the book, Taylor counsels against the blunt application of his system, warning that many workers will resent a system that dictates their work so precisely unless there’s something in it for them, in the form of higher wages and a good relationship with management.

However, viewed with the benefit of a century of hindsight, we can see why Taylor’s book was a success: his approach reinforces the prejudice of the management that workers are merely interchangeable parts in the vast machine of the firm. So much of his methods relates to managing teams of men doing backbreaking physical work like lifting 40kg iron bars (to give you an idea, under British safety legislation any item weighing over 25kg is considered a two-person lift) or shovelling iron ore. These jobs are better done by machines – and indeed they soon were. Whilst Taylor correctly grasps the importance of the idea of the “best way” to do a job, the idea that determining this best way is solely the role of management is a pervasive and unhelpful myth. Where Taylor is right is that the system of work is the responsibility of the management, and that providing the most efficient system possible is best for the company. But improvements to the system need to come from both the management and the workforce, with the workforce being motivated through encouragement and not through fear.