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A major shake-up in employment legislation proposed

KEITH EWING, JOHN HENDY and CAROLYN JONES of the Institute of Employment Rights explain the general principles of Rolling Out the Manifesto for Labour Law — the most detailed framework of progressive legislative proposals on workers’ rights to have been produced for 45 years

IN 2016 the Institute of Employment Rights (IER) published A Manifesto for Labour Law, a radical blueprint for the reform of trade union freedom and workers’ rights.   

Distilled from the contributions of 15 leading scholars and activists, the Manifesto has had a remarkable impact, in this country and overseas.  

Most importantly, it has been adopted by many British trade unions and was endorsed at the TUC Congress in 2016.

It was subsequently adopted by the Labour Party NEC and leadership and became a key inspiration for the comprehensive workers’ rights sections of their programme for government in 2017, set out in the seminal For the Many Not the Few.

At the TUC annual congress on Sunday the IER will launch the next phase in the project, building on the ideas of the Manifesto and taking them closer to a statutory from, in what is in effect an IER White Paper with detailed proposals for a willing government.   

If the Manifesto for Labour Law was the blueprint, Rolling Out the Manifesto for Labour Law is the operator’s manual. It is the most detailed framework of progressive legislative proposals on workers’ rights to have been produced for 45 years.

It is impossible in a short space to do justice to the full range and detail of what is being proposed. But those who have followed the unfolding presentation of these ideas will recognise three core measures.

The first is the reintroduction of a new government department. This will give Britain’s 32 million workers a voice in government and a seat at the Cabinet table.

Rolling Out the Manifesto explains how this can be done, dealing with questions of constitutional law and practice. These are dry but important issues which need to be dealt with first if the substantive changes to labour law proposed in the document are to be achieved.   

How is a new government department set up?

How can it be done quickly to get cracking with a huge agenda of work?

How can political resistance to such an initiative be overcome?   

How can it be made permanent?

Beyond the legal questions, there are hard political questions.

What would the new department do? On this Rolling Out proposes a wide range of tasks, some of which will be new (such as the development of sectoral collective bargaining through National Joint Councils), some of which will be reinstatement of essentials abandoned by the Tories to the free market (like planning for the workforce that Britain and its workers need), while others will involve the transfer of labour-related functions from existing government departments, such as Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

 

Everyone who works for a living should enjoy the benefits of employment protection legislation under
a universal definition of ‘worker’

 

The second core theme is one already mentioned, namely the development of sector-wide collective bargaining, delivering both industry-wide and enterprise-based agreements, with the aim of ensuring that ultimately every worker is protected by a collective agreement.  

This will give workers a say in the terms and conditions under which they work, diminish inequality, prevent undercutting on labour, make for a more efficient economy and go some way to ensuring the UK complies with international law. The restoration of sectoral collective bargaining will greatly empower the democratic role of trade unions in economic decision-making.

To this end, the most innovative provisions of Rolling Out the Manifesto are those detailing the new collective bargaining agenda. This will be in two parts, the first being embodied in a new Collective Bargaining Act which will give the minister in the new government department the power to establish National Joint Councils (NJCs) in each sector of the economy to conduct sector-wide bargaining. This will be done gradually with a view eventually to comprehensive coverage.
 

NJCs will have a wide bargaining remit (fully set out in Rolling Out) and each agreement will be legally binding in the sector it covers.   

The terms and conditions set by these agreements will be minimums for the sector and will be supplemented by enterprise or company based agreements in which trade unions, strengthened by improved recognition legislation, will be free to build upon the sectoral minimum, allowing workers to enjoy the benefits of the most favourable terms applicable to them.   

One of the consequences of sectoral regulation, the empowerment of trade unions and the expansion of collective bargaining will be to reduce the need for regulation of the employment relationship by legislation.  This is not to deny the importance of statutory minimum standards, but it is to say that establishing working conditions should be a matter principally for collective agreements and not legislation and resolving disputes should be a matter of negotiation rather than litigation.

But while we might reduce the need for legislation dealing with questions like a living wage, the regulation of zero-hours contracts, paid holidays, unfair dismissal, equality and discrimination, occupational health and safety, we will never eliminate the need for such legislation altogether.  

The third major theme of Rolling Out the Manifesto is thus to ensure that statutory employment rights are universal in their protection.

Everyone who works for a living should enjoy the benefits of employment protection legislation under a universal definition of “worker.”

The IER has shown the means by which this can be done by drafting the Workers’ Definitions and Rights Bill, published earlier this year.

But Rolling Out also emphasises that legislation is worthless unless it can be enforced, and the document sets out the means to overcome the current enforcement problems.

While the foregoing — a trade union and workers’ voice in government; a Collective Bargaining Act; and the expansion of scope and overhaul of the coverage and enforcement of statutory rights —– may be the core of Rolling Out the Manifesto, it is by no means the whole of it. Detailed work also covers corporate governance, the democratisation of pension funds, and the regulation of supply chains.

Rolling Out the Manifesto represents the collaborative efforts of a group swollen to include 26 of the country’s leading scholars and activists.   

As pointed out by John McDonnell in the foreword, it “explains precisely what is needed to adapt the law to create fair, just, secure, democratic and productive conditions of work.”  

The next step is a progressive government fully committed to implementation.

Rolling Out the Manifesto for Labour Law is available to Morning Star readers for the reduced price of £5.00 at www.ier.org.uk;  (0151) 207-5265; office@ier.org.uk

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