Monday, 1 May 2017

Labour's Workers' Plan: Can It Be Implemented?

Yesterday Labour set out a 20 point (or 18 point depending on which politico you consult) plan to help protect and improve workers' rights in the UK whatever the eventual type of Brexit deal turns out to be. The plan brings together policies that have already been announced by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell along with new policy commitments designed to appeal to low and middle income workers (and employees) who may be feeling insecure about or frustrated about their current working conditions. I want to go through some of them and offer my thoughts from my centre/centre-left perspective:
  1. Giving equal employment rights to those on temporary and part-time contracts is certainly a good idea in theory. Temporary contracts tend to be prevalent in the administrative and food and hospitality sectors at the moment and having increased security RE rights would be welcome for office workers and cleaners alike. If everyone has the same rights, that would mean that it would be illegal for employers to only offer health insurance policies to full time employees, as it would be deemed discriminatory. Would it also mean that those classed as "workers" would gain the same rights as those classed as "employees"-i.e. would workers gain entitlement to minimum notice periods (based on duration of employment), gain protection against unfair dismissal, gain the right to request flexible working hours or gain the right to have time off for emergencies? Would such rights apply to agency workers too (including seasonal agricultural workers)? Such a wide application of employment rights might not be popular with some medium sized firms who are currently struggling to raise the revenue needed to keep their businesses afloat. 
  2. I've always been against zero-hours contracts; I believe it is the responsibility of employers to ensure that they can set a guaranteed number of hours for each employee they offer a contract to. Some students need to have a certain level of flexibility in hours and this flexible requirement could be built into an employment contract -e.g. changing hours or taking study leave when studying for exams. Zero-hours contracts are mostly used in the food and hospitality, warehouse and agricultural sectors. Single people employed in these sectors who want to apply for a mortgage are currently disadvantaged because they do not have a guaranteed amount of income coming in which means they are often stuck in the competitive, expensive and insecure private rental sector. That's got to change. 
  3. Employers and agencies should not advertise a job abroad at a lower wage or with less benefits than they would put in a UK based job advert placed on job sites such as Reed or the government's own Universal Jobmatch. All employers must pay at least the National Living Wage per hour to their workers and employees but those employers who are found to place two different adverts, one of which is advertised abroad at a lower wage than they would offer to a UK based professional do need to be questioned as to why they believe that foreign workers are worth less than UK based workers and why they aren't prepared to recruit UK based workers to fill the job role in the first place. We shouldn't tolerate any undercutting tactics.
  4. Labour wants to repeal the Trade Union Act 2016. The Act makes it more difficult for public sector workers to strike, imposing a minimum turnout threshold of 50% "of eligible union members" and requiring most of that 50% voting to strike before a strike can be considered legal. For unions such as the Royal College of Nursing, there is an additional minimum threshold of 40% "of eligible union members" needed to support a strike which has to be met before a strike can be called. The mandate for a strike only lasts for 6 months (but can be increased to 9 months when there is agreement between the union and employer) and there's a requirement for unions to introduce "an opt-in system for new members to decide whether to contribute to political funds" which they must do before 1st March 2018. The Certification Officer has also been awarded more powers to ensure that unions follow these new rules. The Trade Act is opposed fiercely by trade union officials and Labour activists. I'm not in a trade union and neither is my Mum (who works in the social care sector) so the Act doesn't apply to us but I can understand the desire to want to repeal it. Labour also wants to help trade unions engage in "sectoral collective bargaining" whereby agreements are reached that cover all UK workers and not just workers in an individual organisation. Very idealistic but if it leads to increased employment protections for all workers, it would please a large section of the current electorate. 
  5. Trade union representatives should be allowed to discuss issues with members and potential members (including in their own workplaces) and I do think that employers should not be able to remove representatives just because they themselves are not supportive of trade union membership. Should trade union representatives have an automatic right to enter workplaces? Not without consultation with HR departments/ management so they can facilitate meeting times so that they don't occur during busy working periods. 
  6. The 4 new bank holidays proposal (made on St George's Day) wasn't a specific priority for me. Voters in Birchwood that I've talked to are a little unsure as to how it could be implemented. It seems to them as if Corbyn may only have the power to have the 4 bank holidays implemented in England and I wonder whether it'd have been more prudent to offer just the 1 bank holiday in England for St George's Day and suggest 1 bank holiday in Wales for St David's Day (a petition was presented to Tony Blair's office in 2007 but it was rejected). St Andrew's Day is already a bank holiday in Scotland and there's not any consensus as to whether St Patrick's Day should be celebrated officially in Northern Ireland as a bank holiday. Of course the view could be taken that having the 4 bank holidays off at the same time in all 4 nations may help foster a sense of cultural patriotism and bring us together following the divisive EU Referendum but then there's a contrasting view that suggests that having an extra 4 days off would be beneficial for workers anyways and bring the UK in line with other EU countries. Business leaders and economists are more cynical of Mr Corbyn's suggestion, with the Institute of Directors warning that "small businesses would be hardest hit by the proposals" ("4 more bank holidays to "cost economy £9bn a year", Daily Mail, 24th April 2017 https://www.pressreader.com/uk/daily-mail/20170424/281741269304658). Mind you the "more than £9bn a year" figure was worked out by quadrupling the figure for 1 bank holiday from 2012 (£2.3bn) estimated by the think-tank the Centre For Economics and Business Research. 
  7. Raising the minimum wage to the level of the NLW for all workers, including those aged under 25 is a welcome policy. Under 25s are struggling to pay for their rent and any extra money would help ease their bill burden and increase their disposable income, which could help boost consumer spending, at least in the short term. As to whether there is a specific commitment to raise the NLW to £10 per hour it seems that Labour's going for a more realistic approach where they aim for a £10 per hour NLW by 2020 rather than introducing a £10 per hour NLW in one go in October. Some potential voters I spoke to in Lincoln weren't sure of the difference before so it's good to see some clarity from the Labour Leadership on this.
  8. Ending the public sector pay cap of 1% on wages (not just in the NHS) is a great suggestion, especially as the Resolution Foundation concluded that the cap currently leaves workers facing a £1,700 drop in annual pay by 2020. A Trade Union Congress study released in January 2017 found that midwives, teachers and social workers faced a real wage (adjusted for inflation) cut of more than £3,000 by 2020 if the cap remains in place. 5.4 million workers are affected. It's a scandal that some nurses are being forced to visit foodbanks just to get the food they need to give them the energy to go and work in hospitals and GP surgeries to help care for others. I don't know exactly how much public sector pay would rise by (Labour suggests that for NHS professionals it would be done through collective bargaining and engaging with independent pay review bodies) but they do indeed deserve a pay rise. I'd personally be suggesting a pay rise of between 2-3.5% in October and then a further 1% per year beyond that. 
  9. Amending the takeover code to make it mandatory for management to have a clear plan in place, especially regarding pension provisions would help workers and pensioners feel more secure. At the moment companies are only required to inform employees about the takeover, with employee representatives and pension scheme trustees "offering a separate opinion" about how the takeover would affect employees and pension scheme beneficiaries. I do believe that it's important to avoid a repeat of the BHS fiasco and comprehensive strategic planning can help. It's the fair, ethical thing to do.   
  10. The pay ratio suggestion of 20:1 for public sector bigwigs and those companies bidding for public sector contracts was broadly popular when it was announced by Jeremy Corbyn in January. Polling conducted by The Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/majority-of-public-support-jeremy-corbyn-s-plans-to-cap-bosses-salaries-poll-finds-a7527381.html) for example showed that 57% backed the policy and 47% of Conservative voters backed it too. 47%! It seems fair to me that there should be a limit as to how much the person at the top earns, especially as inflation is currently hitting workers on the National Minimum Wage and NLW hard (2.3% in March 2017). I am surprised that the Conservatives didn't consider nicking this policy but it shows that they are the more the party of business bigwigs and not of entry level administrative assistants, cleaners and social care workers.  
  11. Unpaid internships should be banned outright; working class graduates cannot afford to take them on (meaning that they find it more difficult to get into occupations such as media and the law because they can't gain the relevant experienced needed to attract employers) and few companies have been prepared to offer work experience and internships in professional sectors to those who rely on Universal Credit or Jobseekers Allowance (even though this is starting to change, albeit slowly). Expecting people to work for free full-time for any period over a month is exploitative. It's not advertised as a voluntary position, after all. Even the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility found that all interns should be paid after their first month. The Tory Government blocked a proposal to ban unpaid internships in November 2016 so I certainly don't trust them to reform internship practices.  
  12. Every employee should be made aware of trade union representation rights, especially when it comes to negotiating with HR/Management over changes to working hours/shift patterns due to disability or providing care to relatives, Employees also should be able to access trade union representation when they are involved in a disciplinary case or are bringing a harassment case against a manager or colleague. Trade union representatives can offer advice and guidance, especially on key points of the law. 
  13. I'm very much supportive of abolishing employment tribunal fees because it would help increase access to justice for those who have been unfairly dismissed or discriminated against. I'd also like a firm commitment to reintroduce the "dual discrimination" Equality Act (2010) provisions so that an employee can bring a sole claim of discrimination on the basis of race and sex to an employment tribunal instead of having to bring two separate cases.  
  14. I think doubling paid paternity leave to 4 weeks is a good idea; an increase in paternity pay would also be welcome (currently set at £140.98 or 90% of monthly wage, whichever is lowest). The Women's Equality Party believe that paternity leave should be 6 weeks at 90% of their pay level which sounds even better. Still, it's a step in the right direction. 
  15. Women should not be made unfairly redundant just because they have decided to have a child. At the moment if an employer decides to make a female employee redundant because she is pregnant or because she is on maternity leave it is considered an act of automatic unfair dismissal and pregnancy or maternity discrimination and the employee can then bring a claim against the employer. If an employer decides that less employees are needed to do existing work, that employer still needs to offer an employee on maternity leave any suitable jobs that may be available (before they offer those jobs to any employee not on maternity leave) as per Regulation 10 of the Maternity and Paternity Leave Regulations 1999 (which applies from day 1 of employment). If the employer does not offer the pregnant employee or employee on maternity leave an alternative suitable position when there is a vacancy in the organisation then that employee can bring an automatic unfair dismissal and pregnancy discrimination claim against the employer. Employees who are on maternity leave also have the right to be consulted if the employer plans on making 20 or more people redundant at their workplace within a period of 90 days or less and if they aren't consulted they can bring a case for automatic unfair dismissal and maternity discrimination. Yet employers rarely admit that they have dismissed an employee on the basis of their pregnancy or maternity leave and may use "fair reasons" (e.g. accusing them of taking too many "sick days" when in fact the employee had to take a pregnancy-related sickness absence leave because of violent morning sickness/pain) in an incorrect way as grounds for dismissal. It's important to note that any absence records that are used as a redundancy selection criterion that refer to morning sickness/ maternity related absences can result in an employment tribunal ruling that pregnancy/maternity discrimination has taken place (as per Brown V Rentokil Ltd, where the European Court of Justice ruled that dismissal of a worker on cross of ill-health absences while pregnant was a form of discrimination).Pregnancy and maternity discrimination certainly needs to be tackled head on and strengthening these current protections RE unfair redundancy will help enormously. 
  16. Blacklisting is an outdated business practice that needs to be stamped out. I remember the Unite case from May last year when 252 construction workers were awarded £10m in compensation for being blacklisted by construction companies (which came to light after a raid by the Information Commissioners Office in 2009). Blacklists can include information on a worker's political views and trade union activities which should never be determining factors as to whether a company decides to hire a worker or employee or not. Blacklisting is automatic discrimination and holding a public inquiry is essential to make sure it doesn't happen in the future.
  17. Statutory rights for equalities reps sounds like a good idea; they can help advise and support LGBTQIA+ employees when they are bringing a case of direct or indirect discrimination against an employer, especially cases involving harassment and victimisation. Equalities reps can also help try and negotiate with an employer when they seem unwilling to provide reasonable adjustments for disabled employees. Equalities reps should have the time to speak to management and HR to ensure that the Equality Act, Gender Recognition Act (2004) and other pieces of employment legislation are being complied with. 
  18. Every employee should be protected from third-party harassment so I support Labour's proposal to reinstate legal protections which were repealed in 2013 under the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition Government. It isn't acceptable for trans employees to be stalked by transphobic contractors and for women to hear constant sexist remarks about their appearance from the same visiting businessman. (Remember that the Equality Act provision only made an employer liable when the harassment had taken place on two previous separate occasions, that the employer knew it had taken place and had not taken any reasonable steps to prevent it from happening-e.g. talking to the client/customer to warn them that their behaviour was unacceptable.) Everyone does have a right to feel safe at work and clients and contractors should respect this right and employers should have a statutory duty to ensure that their employees are adequately protected. 
  19. The public sector procurement system should be subject to rigorous checks. I don't think that contracts should be awarded to private sector companies who do not respect the right of their employees to join a trade union or do not choose to recognise trade unions during the negotiation process. It's better for businesses to be constructive and work together with trade unions to improve working conditions and employment rights rather than refuse to work with them altogether. 
  20. Gender pay gap auditing is now an essential requirement for businesses who employ over 250 staff. They must publish data and a written statement on their website and report their data to the Government online via the Gender Pay Gap Reporting Service at least once a year (public sector businesses by 31 March and businesses and charities by the 5th April). Data that must be collected includes "mean and median gender pay gap in hourly pay, mean and median bonus gender pay gap, the proportion of males and females receiving a bonus payment and proportion of males and females in each pay quartile" (Gender pay reporting: overview https://www.gov.uk/guidance/gender-pay-gap-reporting-overview). Labour wants to make sure that every business with more than 250 employees complies with the requirement with the introduction of a civil enforcement system. Penalties, including fines for non compliance should act as a sufficient deterrent. 
Conclusion: 
Labour's plan would lead to an definite improvement in employment rights. If I was a young person under 25 on a temporary contract, I'd be pleased to see that I'd gain the right to time off for emergencies and to be able to have a notice period before being dismissed. I'd also be pleased that my pay would increase to the NLW, which would help me possibly move out and find a place of my own. If I was a nurse in the NHS who is a member of the Royal College of Nursing, I'd be pleased to see an end to the pay cap because it'd mean that they wouldn't have to take time out to go out on the picket line to get the inept Jeremy Hunt and the Tory Government to remove it. If I was a young administrative worker planning on having a child I'd be pleased that Labour plans to strengthen existing protections so that it becomes less likely that you can be made unfairly redundant because you happen to be on pregnancy-related sickness leave or maternity leave.  If I was a trade union representative, of course I'd be pleased to see the Trade Union Act repealed and more powers available to conduct sectoral collective bargaining and be involved in government procurement negotiations. So for workers and employees, the plan is beneficial.

There's no room in 21st century Britain for exploitative practices either. Blacklisting needs to be stamped out. Unpaid internships need to end. Undercutting wages by placing adverts abroad for workers at a different rate from that adverts placed in the UK should be stopped. It's incumbent on employers to make sure that they play their part by not promoting or participating in such practices. Instead of offering unpaid internships, employers could offer paid work experience to working class graduates. Instead of blacklisting, HR staff can bring their recruitment policies up to date so that no candidates are discriminated against on the basis of political affiliation or trade union membership. Job adverts should be the same wherever they are placed.

Labour's plan won't appeal to everyone and isn't without criticism. The bank holidays proposal needs to be scrutinised in terms of its feasibility. There needs to be clarification as to whether agency workers would gain the same benefits as those on temporary and permanent contracts. Would employment status classifications be simplified under a Labour Government? There's also the question of whether all the elements contained within the Trade Union Act should be repealed. An opt-in system for political contributions seems a fair proposal to me; not all workers who want to join trade unions want to pay towards Labour party funds.

I believe that Labour's plan is bold and will help those workers and employees who need better employment protections the most in the 21st century. Fighting against exploitation and discrimination to create a fairer, better Britain has been part of Labour's raison d'ĂȘtre since the party was founded on the 27th February 1900 . This plan fits very well into the tradition of using political systems to enact social change. If you like the policies that have been proposed, the best way to enact them would be to vote Labour on the 8th June.