Monday, 15 May 2017

The Conservatives' Workers Plan: Not Really That Progressive...

Today Prime Minister Theresa May set out a new vision to improve workers' rights in the UK prior to the Brexit process being completed in 2019. It's rather timely that PM May has decided to try and address inequalities in employment legislation head-on given that many Millennial workers and employees are worried about job security and pay; of course she's trying to appeal to centre and centre-left voters such as myself. However, when you get into some of the detail, the plan doesn't look as enticing as it should be. In fact, I'd say that PM May is playing to the gallery without being as as wholly progressive as a forward-looking, positive, progressive party should be.
  • Introducing a legal entitlement for employees to take up to 52 weeks off to look after disabled dependents who require full-time care seems like a good idea on the surface. Employers will need to keep the job open for employees on leave for the full period and provide any training (e.g. payroll updates for HR/Payroll Administrators) necessary to help the employee adjust effectively when they come back from leave. The major problem with this policy is that the leave has to be taken UNPAID. I can't think of many working class people in my local ward, Birchwood, who are subsisting on or earning just over the National Living Wage who'd be able to afford to go on care leave and it's not clear whether they would be entitled to Carers Allowance or any form of financial assistance whilst on this leave (at the moment Carers Allowance is not means tested but if you earn more £116 a week, you are not entitled to it). Plus this policy isn't a "firm" guarantee; the Tories state that they will "consult with carers, businesses and employees" to decide on the "right length and nature of leave". This means that proposals could be watered down if many Small and Medium sized businesses particularly object. We already have 6 million unpaid carers in the UK and they save the UK taxpayers £132bn a year according to Carers UK. Only 800,000 out of the 6 million claim Carers Allowance, meaning that many are juggling the stress of having to bring money into the household to ensure that bills get paid with the stress of helping their disabled partner, parent(s) or child/children with day-to-day tasks required to keep them healthy and safe. What we should be doing as a country is providing adequate resources to support them; there's nothing so far in Tory proposals that would see an increase in the number of carers entitled to the Carers Allowance or an increase in the amount a person receives from the Allowance. Labour wants to increase Carers Allowance by 17% (an extra £10 a week) to bring it in line with Jobseeker's Allowance (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/apr/17/labour-to-promise-unpaid-carers-17-allowance-increase). 
  • Improving rights for self-employed people and those in the "gig economy", including bloggers, creatives and consultants is long overdue. Labour had already suggested providing statutory paternity and maternity leave for temporary workers (because they promise in their 20 point plan to give every worker, whether temporary or permanent, full-time or part-time the same employment rights from day 1 of their employment) so the Tories really are playing catch-up. There should be an expansion of rights for temporary workers that includes the ability to take an employer to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal and statutory minimum notice periods. As for the self-employed, I would imagine a Labour government would be more than willing to make statutory paternity and maternity leave and pay available. 
  • Not many voters would be against bringing in a statutory child bereavement leave of 2 weeks, provided that the leave was paid (at least 90% of pay should be provided). Introducing such leave IS NOT dependent on us leaving the EU, as PM May seemed to be claiming when she boasts of improving employment rights "thanks to Brexit opportunities" and I can't see any reason why Labour or any other party would not consider introducing Child Bereavement Leave. 
  • PM May has guaranteed to keep all employment protections currently enjoyed by employees that derive from the EU, including the Working Time Directive 1998. Other parties have already committed to such a guarantee so the PM and the Tories are a bit late to the party. Also, remember that May has not yet guaranteed the right to remain for the 3 million EU nationals who work just as hard as British citizens, especially in the agricultural sector, adult social care sector and the NHS. I won't trust the Tories because they are unwilling to guarantee status to all of our workers and employees in this country. 
  • "Returnships" to help mothers and long-term carers back into work sounds like a good idea in principle but how would they work in practice? Would they be fully funded? How would they be structured? Which employers would be able to provide them? Surely the public sector organisations should lead the way and create programmes that allow people to update their skills to get them readily employable, especially in an office environment? Wishy washy.
  • "Time off for training" (which must be requested from employers) again sounds good in principle but most businesses in the private sector already provide time off for their employees to attend mandatory training courses and time off to study and sit key exams and these training days tend to be paid. One question to ask is whether the commitment made here goes beyond industry-specific and employer-related training. Would an admin worker be given time off to study for her AAT qualification or a HR qualification to help expand her skillset, for example? What about a scaffolder who needed time off to study for an ECDL computer qualification? At the moment employers can turn down a request for training time off if they believe such training wouldn't benefit the business, would run up extra running costs for the business or if the employer can't find anyone to cover the employee's workload. That means at the moment it is likely that an employer would turn down the scaffolder's request but perhaps not the admin assistant's request (https://www.gov.uk/training-study-work-your-rights/employers-decision-and-responsibilities). Would PM May's guarantee change or remove the training restrictions? Another question is whether May's proposal will actually extend to agency workers and to those employees who have been with an organisation for at least 26 weeks (the current mandatory threshold)? 
  • Workers' pensions should be protected, especially those that come from private sector companies. Nobody wants a repeat of the BHS scandal where it took an enquiry to get Sir Philip Green to provide the money required to secure the pensions of BHS workers and he wasn't even the owner of BHS at that point. There are very few organisations that would have an ex-owner realise his previous obligations to employees and pay up. Introducing new powers to the pensions regulator so they can inspect takeovers to see how it would impact "the sustainability of a pension fund" does sound a bit like Labour's own policy that was announced in their 20 point plan a few weeks back. At least we all seem to agree that reckless company owners should face fines and criminal charges for illegal behaviour though! 
  • The Equality Act 2010 should most definately be extended so that it protects employees and workers who have mental health conditions such as anxiety or bipolar from being directly and indirectly discriminated against, especially if the condition is short-term (less than 1 year). However, there's also a need to extend the Equality Act so that non-binary, gender-fluid and genderqueer employees are also protected from such discrimination; the way to do that would be to change the protected characteristic from "Gender Reassignment Surgery" to "Gender Identity"and removing outdated language such as "transsexual". Intersex people's rights should also be protected by including "intersex" as a protected characteristic. If you're going to amend the Equalities Act, let's do it comprehensively. 
  • Increasing the NLW "in line with median earnings" for the duration of the next Parliament again sounds OK but it's not a new announcement. The Tories had already confirmed their target for the NLW is for it to "reach 60% of median hourly earnings by 2020", which is £8.75, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast. There is the concern that NLW increases may be smaller than expected if the economy does not grow as we deal with the immediate aftermath of Brexit. Why should those on the lowest incomes suffer minimal wage growth even if they are still working as hard or harder than they did prior to the EU referendum? We need to be paying our hard working cleaners, retail workers and entry-level admin assistants more, not less. That's why Labour's proposal to ensure the NLW reaches around £10 an hour by 2020 sounds extremely tempting. However, I do believe in the need to keep the Low Pay Commission an independent body and follow guidance for rises from them wherever possible but the 1% public sector pay cap is unfair and needs to be scrapped. There's also no commitment from the Tories to bring the Apprenticeship wage or the NMW for under 25's in line with the NLW, meaning that young people continue to face stark choices between heating and eating and cannot save up enough money to afford to get a deposit to rent a flat or house whereas their older counterparts may be able to. We need to end such pay inequality. 
  • The Conservatives keep telling us that they are the party of the working class, yet they seem unwilling to make the changes necessary to create a fairer workplace for all. It seems ridiculous that executives continue to earn vast amounts even when their performance may have been seen to be merely satisfactory at best. Theresa May promised when she took office in July 2016 that she would tackle excessive executive pay head-on. Yet there's no mention of it in her plans. That's despite the CBI suggesting that shareholder power should be strengthened, with CEOs mandatorily facing a binding vote on remuneration policy at the next Annual General Meeting (AGM) if "they lose the vote on pay from the shareholder advisory committee" or "if 25% or more vote against the directors' remuneration report for two consecutive years" (http://www.cbi.org.uk/news/strengthen-shareholder-power-to-curb-excessive-executive-pay/). Labour meanwhile have proposed a pay ratio for firms who wish to obtain or have obtained Government contracts, where the executives can earn no more than 20 times what an entry-level employee earns. That sounds perfectly rational to me, so why are the Cons so reluctant to include a similar proposal in their plans? Are they worried they might get blowback from their multi-millionaire donors? 
  • Employees should have more of a say on how an organisation is run by having representation at board level. They are one of the major stakeholders within a firm and their concerns should be listened to. Listed companies should have stakeholder advisory panels who can then nominate a "non-executive director" or a direct worker representative to the board of directors. PM May has suggested that she would not make employee representation on boards in the boardroom a mandatory requirement yet I believe it is essential that every listed company should be forced to comply. It doesn't matter whether that person happens to be a member of a trade union or not but clearly even listed companies have to liaise with trade union officials when disputes occur and perhaps a worker representative would be able to act as that key point of contact to ensure that disputes were resolved quickly and effectively. Employees should certainly have access to the same level of information regarding the future business activity of their organisation as other stakeholders and perhaps this policy would facilitate that. 
  • Extending gender pay gap reporting obligations to take account of ethnicity does again sound like a plausible policy. Large companies need to do more to improve representation, especially at executive level and to ensure that employees are being paid fairly, so that there is no discrimination on the basis of ethnicity. Under this proposal, large companies who employ more than 250 employees would need to provide information about how much they pay workers from each ethnic group, with the findings displayed on the employer's website and on a Government site so they are freely accessible to the public.
Remember, there's nothing in the Conservative plans to:
  • Increase Access to Justice; employment tribunal fees would remain in place and dual discrimination cases could not be brought even if an employee has been discriminated against on the basis of two separate protected characteristics
  • Reinstate Third Party Harassment legislation (because the Tories got rid of them in 2013) 
  • Expand the Access to Work Programme to help more disabled people get into sustainable employment
  • Double Paternity Leave (and no indication of whether paternity pay would be brought into line with maternity pay) 
  • Ban zero-hours contracts
  • Ban exploitative unpaid internships (that means that working class young people will continue to struggle to gain access to the professions, especially in media and the law, without financial assistance)
  • Increase the number of bank holidays (but that's not of vital importance to me....still 4 extra days off is nothing to be sniffed at)
  • Scrap the 1% public sector pay cap 
  • Hold an inquiry into blacklisting so that companies cannot discriminate against contractors, workers and employees on the basis of trade union membership or political party membership or views
  • Strengthen protections against unfair dismissal for pregnant women and mothers
Naturally the Tories have no wish to repeal the Trade Union Act 2016 either, which wouldn't win over many trade union members or activists who believe the rules contained within the Act are unfair and designed to restrict freedom of union representation. The Tories hail the Act as a means of protecting "millions of people from the effects of undemocratic strike action" (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/trade-union-act-measures-come-into-force-to-protect-people-from-undemocratic-industrial-action). Whilst I'm ambivalent with regards to increasing trade union rights (because I'm not a member of a trade union), I do understand the concerns that trade union representatives and members may have. The good news is that the Tories seem reluctant to make any further changes to the Act (such as trying to bring in restrictions that were already withdrawn from the Trade Union Act when in the consultation stage, such as restricting trade union use of social media or picket supervisors being forced to wear an armband to identify themselves which could lead them facing discrimination). Liberty have raised concerns about the possibility of the Tories bringing in secondary legislation as a result of the passing of the Act, including the possibility of allowing employers to bring in temporary staff to cover staff on strike (https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/campaigning/trade-union-act-2016).

Labour have made improving Trade Union rights a significant part of their 20 point plan (see: http://sassysvensknorsk.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/labours-workers-plan-can-it-be.html). There does remain the issue of whether Labour's 20 point plan will appeal to as large a cross-section of employees, workers and the self-employed as perhaps the Tory plan may do. For example, SME owners may be far more comfortable with the idea of having to allow an employee leave to care for a disabled relative than having to recognise trade union representation from their employees. Strengthened training rights may sound enticing to workers who wish to retrain or upskill to improve their career prospects. The "iron-clad" guarantee from the PM to protect all EU employment directives may make it easier for Conservative remain voters to stick with the party. However, I'm just not convinced that the policies that will be offered in the Tory manifesto will be progressive enough to enact real change in our workplaces. Employees and workers aged 25 and under will not see a much needed increase in their NMW and Apprenticeship Wage. Unpaid internships will remain in place, meaning that some professions (especially PR and the Law) may remain off-limits to working class graduates filled with aspiration for a productive, happy working life. Zero-hours contracts that leave workers feeling insecure could go up following Brexit as employers struggle to improve productivity levels and secure contracts from EU businesses. Public sector workers will continue to feel the squeeze, even though they are working harder than ever to ensure that every service user has their needs met. The Royal College of Nursing Union has just overwhelmingly voted to go on strike for the first time in their history over the 1% pay cap with a ballot being held soon to guarantee strike action in the summer. When nurses have seen a 14% cut in real wages since 2010 and low pay being given as the reason why tens of thousands of nursing positions are not being filled, I don't blame them. PM May has comprehensively said she will not lift the cap. So why would public sector workers even contemplate voting for the Conservatives when they will continue to face real-term cuts in their wages? Do the Tories think a vague promise on "returnships" and a right to unpaid care leave is going to sway those voters?

Voters have a real choice at this election. They can choose to prop up a Tory party that makes vague promises on improving employment rights but refuses to carry out the actions needed to make the UK workplace fairer for all, including guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals currently employed in UK businesses to remain in the UK or they can take a chance on a Labour party with a policy platform that genuinely aims to improve rights "for the many", not the few. At the last General Election I was very sceptical of the Labour platform to improve workers' rights. I thought that the rights we currently enjoyed were enough. That's because I didn't know much about the true scale of workplace issues in the UK. Now it seems rational to me to that we should see wages improve for those under 25 and to help those in the public sector by scrapping the pay cap. Austerity measures have failed to grow the economy effectively. Improving the pay and working conditions of everyone who contributes to the economy should be a primary goal of any progressive government. Of course that that doesn't just mean focussing on trade union representatives and members. Self-employed people deserve to have more stability, especially when they need time off to have a child or look after them. The Tory promise of introducing Statutory Maternity and Paternity Leave will appeal to self-employed voters who are thinking of starting a family but I believe that a Labour Government may go further and give them access to Statutory Pay and double the length of Paternity Leave at the same time. That's an example of a truly progressive policy. So yes, I appreciate the Tories trying to reach out and soften their image with voters who are worried about their pay and conditions reducing after Brexit but I don't think their platform is likely to win over many sceptical voters over. "Nice try but no cigar" as my Lincoln carpeting small business owning Granddad Albert Colley used to say.