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Rolling out the manifesto for labour law

THE Labour Party has once again announced its support for think tank the Institute of Employment Rights’ (IER) Manifesto for Labour Law — a series of recommendations offering wholesale reform to UK labour laws.

By placing sectoral negotiation at the heart of industrial relations, the reforms will  stimulate economic growth while reducing inequality.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell first signalled his support for such reforms in 2016 when the IER’s Manifesto was published.

The proposals went on to influence the party’s popular 2017 election manifesto, For the Many, Not the Few. Labour then asked the IER to develop the proposals further and, in response, a new report Rolling out the Manifesto for Labour Law has been published as a roadmap for the implementation of those ideas.

The publication was authored by a formidable team of 26 labour law experts and will be launched at TUC and Labour Party conference fringes.

“The world of work has changed dramatically in the last few decades, particularly in the last few years. But the reality is there is very little difference between workers queuing up 40 years ago, hoping to get a day’s work, and the people waiting for a text from their agency hoping for a shift for that day,” shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey said. “The Institute’s recommendations will help us to deliver better wages, better quality jobs, better education and training, and a stronger, more productive economy that benefits us all.”

The overarching aim of the Manifesto is to shift the focus of labour law away from individual rights to collectively bargained standards, widely recognised as a more efficient and effective way to prevent the exploitation of the most vulnerable — including migrant workers and those in low-paid sectors.

The Manifesto also recommends strengthening the statutory rights’ safety net; improving enforcement mechanisms to ensure laws and collective agreements are followed; and enhancing trade union rights so that workers and their representatives are protected in the workplace, and have the opportunity to build on sectoral collective agreements at enterprise level.

In a Morning Star exclusive, we detail the substance of the Manifesto proposals and how they would apply to the everyday worker.

Giving workers a voice

IN January this year, Lauren Townsend, 26, was given just two days’ notice by her employer TGI Friday’s that a new tip-sharing policy would strip around £60 a week off her already low wage.

“We tried to complain and express our concerns but were ignored and belittled,” she told us, her words echoing those of other workers in other industries who said they felt dehumanised and ignored.

Lauren turned to her union and, in months, she had unionised over 250 TGI Friday’s workers across the UK.

In the press spotlight, the company was forced to reverse some of the damaging cuts they’d made, such as refusing to pay for time spent training and withdrawing staff meals.

Trade unions have long proven themselves to be the most effective channel through which to provide workers with a democratic voice in the workplace, but, following the imposition of anti-trade union laws in the 1980s, collective bargaining coverage has fallen dramatically.

At the same time, economic inequality has skyrocketed, with the share of GDP going to wages falling from 65 per cent to 49 per cent — figures which themselves underestimate the depth of inequity, as they include CEO salaries 386 times higher than the national living wage.

Following careful analysis of successful industrial relations policies at home and abroad, the Institute of Employment Rights sets out a comprehensive framework of reforms to ensure that democracy does not end at the gate to the workplace or with an X in a ballot box.

A ministry of labour (MoL) should be created, led by a secretary of state with a cabinet seat to represent workers’ voices in Parliament.

It should enact a Collective Bargaining Act that establishes national joint councils (NJCs) in every sector to negotiate sectoral collective agreements that cover everything from wages to apprenticeships and represent the interests of their sectors to government.

By creating a national economic forum to plan for future industrial challenges and scrutinise the impact of policy on workers and the economy, we can come together as a society to ensure technological advances increase productivity not unemployment.

Sectoral collective bargaining is the dominant form of industrial relations across much of the developed world, particularly in Europe’s strongest economies.

Relying on enterprise bargaining, as we do in the UK, allows employers to compete on lower wages and conditions. Weak recognition and access rights for trade unions are a barrier to negotiation.

TGI Friday’s still refuses to negotiate on its tip-sharing policy, but under the IER’s proposed system, it would be bound by terms and conditions negotiated by unions and applicable to all workers across the hospitality sector.

This is not to say that enterprise bargaining should not continue — on the contrary, it should be encouraged — but company-level agreements should not be allowed to fall below sectorally agreed minimums and instead should build on them.

Protecting our protectors

“WITH all the anti-trade union laws in place, we feel impotent,” Lauren told us. “When we go on strike, we have to give TGI’s two weeks’ notice, so they just replace us and go on like it’s business as usual.”

It is self-evident that without effective trade union rights, workers’ voices will continue to go unheard. Trade union recognition and access rights should be simplified and improved, providing workers with a genuine choice to be represented by a union instead of having to fight for it.

And workers’ voices need to be heard above shop floor level. A minimum of two workers’ representatives should have seats on company boards and worker votes at company general meetings.

Further, it should be made unlawful for employers to intimidate, harass, threaten or subject workers to a detriment if they show trade union support.

Lee Fowler, an electrician, has experienced the worst-case scenario of trade union intimidation.

He has spent the last 26 years unemployed or being denied full employment rights when forced to work through agencies or as a “self-employed” contractor, after he appeared on the Consulting Association’s infamous blacklist.

“We got a bit of compensation, but that’s not justice,” he said, looking back to the 2016 High Court case that saw some of Britain’s largest construction firms admit to a conspiracy to lock 3,213 workers out of work.

“After all they’ve done to us, we want to see the people responsible held personally liable. We’ve had our lives torn apart and we just want to be heard,” he said.

The Institute of Employment Rights proposes criminal sanctions for blacklisters and other serious breaches of the law, including holding individual directors and shareholders liable for their personal actions where appropriate.  

Chris has worked in social care for 30 years. When he spoke to the IER, he told us that he was thinking of joining the droves of colleagues quitting the sector.

“We’re burned out, stressed, struggling to survive on wages that stagnated years ago,” he explained.

It hasn’t always been like this, he told us, but things have gone downhill since the care sector was privatised in the mid-90s. As businesses competed for public contracts, wages and conditions were cut so the company could offer the lowest bid.

Employers should not be rewarded for exploiting workers. Public procurement and licensing should be limited to suppliers who recognise a trade union and comply with relevant collective agreements.

And the IER does not believe that the benefits of this policy should be limited to the UK.

National joint councils should agree minimum standards to be applied across the supply chain and public contracts should be awarded only to those who can prove they practise due diligence to protect workers at all levels of their supply chain.

Stronger statutory rights

WHILE sectoral bargaining is being rolled out, statutory rights should be strengthened.

Pay and conditions

The UK average median wage is now £23,000 and over 20 per cent of the workforce earn £15,000 or below. Real wages have stagnated for a decade, leaving a growing number of workers dependent on in-work benefits.

“Apparently lying awake, away from your family, doesn’t count as working,” Chris told us. He is denied the national minimum wage for “sleep-in” shifts.

“You can’t sleep when you know that, if you miss one thing, the service user could get hurt,” he explained. For time spent on “sleep-ins” he gets just £3 per hour.

Lauren too found that some of her colleagues were struggling on just £5.90 an hour due to laws that allow her employer to pay younger workers less.

“Young people don’t get discounted rent or food, so why should they be paid so much less for doing the exact same job?” she said.

And such inequalities don’t stop at pay. One in 10 of 32 million UK workers are employed in insecure work, such as zero-hours contracts, agency work or bogus “self-employment,” denied guaranteed hours, protection from unfair dismissal and even the national minimum wage.

The IER recommends scrapping the three-tier structure of employment status, which currently provides “workers” with fewer rights than “employees” and those on zero-hours contracts with even fewer rights.

A universal status of worker that entitles all people in employment to the same rights from day one should be introduced, a living wage that covers the real cost of living should replace the national minimum wage and national living wage and a right to a minimum number of guaranteed hours should be stipulated by employers, alongside a premium rate for overtime, replacing zero-hours contracts.

Health and safety

Between 2004 and 2015, the number of inspectors employed by the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities fell by 34 per cent and 35 per cent respectively. Proactive inspections dropped even further by 69 per cent, with a massive fall of 96 per cent in preventative inspections.

This is largely down to the government’s recent policy to prohibit the proactive inspection of what it calls “low-risk” occupations, but 53 per cent of fatalities occurred in these workplaces in the first 19 months of the new law, and the majority of the costs were borne by the victims’ families and the taxpayer. Statistically, the average workplace can now expect an inspection every 50 years.

Lee doesn’t know why he was blacklisted, but he thinks it began when he put himself forth as a safety rep. In that role, he was ignored, devalued and even faced threats.

“They’d schedule jobs for when I wasn’t on site, then break health and safety standards they knew I would insist on meeting,” he recalled.

“When the other safety reps and I realised what was going on, we told them, if they weren’t willing to follow the rules, we would resign.

That’s when we were called to a meeting where we were told that, if we didn’t pipe down, they didn’t know what would ‘happen to us’!”

Health and safety reps should have the power to stop the job when danger is imminent or serve provisional improvement notices for lower-risk breaches. Funding should be made available for more health and safety inspections and the return of proactive inspections in all industries.

Further, the Primary Authority scheme should be repealed to prevent large companies from avoiding legal obligations.

Equality

Trade union involvement remains the best way to provide for an equal workplace and the IER recommends the introduction of a statutory requirement for properly trained equality officers, who would spread good practice and assist workers facing discrimination and harassment.

Socio-economic status, caste, family status and gender identity should become protected characteristics, ensuring that workers cannot be discriminated against for their background, being single or married, or for standing outside an outdated “binary” concept of gender.

Further, equality between all groups should be promoted through the strengthening of the Public Sector Equality Duty and encouraging positive action by employers.

Employers should have a duty to provide harassment-free workplaces, including by third parties, such as customers and contractors.

Families too need better protection. As many as 4.1 million children in poverty are from working families, and an unacceptable gender pay gap remains.

Fathers should have a month of full-paid paternity leave and both parents should be offered two to three months shared parental leave on a “use it or lose it” basis in order to encourage fathers to share childcare duties, help women back into work and shift employers’ perception that it is only women who need to balance work with family duties.

Flexible working should be a day one right for all workers with limited exceptions.

Stronger enforcement

WORKERS’ rights without effective remedies are rights written in sand. Unlike other developed countries, the UK does not have a broad, independent agency to police labour law.

While some serious breaches are enforced by the Gangmasters’ Enforcement Agency, HM Revenue & Customs and other government bodies, most must be identified and policed by workers themselves, but, as Lauren found out, this is no simple matter.

“Most of my colleagues are young and a lot of them had no idea what their employment rights were, never mind what a union does or why they should join one. It’s no wonder we get exploited like this when the government leaves it down to us to enforce the law,” she said.

What’s more, even when a worker does make a successful claim at tribunal, over half never receive their full compensation and a third don’t get any at all.

Under the IER recommendations, the emphasis will be on resolving disputes without resorting to litigation where possible, through in-house dispute procedures agreed by national joint councils and the establishment of an independent labour inspectorate with the power to enter workplaces, issue enforcement notices and reinstate unfairly dismissed workers.

Where the dispute cannot be resolved in this manner, the inspectorate will have the power to bring legal proceedings on behalf of workers at a labour court, as well as criminal prosecutions against the worst offenders.

Workers should have free access to legal advice and voluntary Acas arbitration.

The central arbitration committee and employment tribunals will make up the first tier of the labour court system and will be given greater powers to investigate and resolve disputes, while a new unit of the Crown Prosecution Service will be created to investigate corporate manslaughter.

Penalties should also be strengthened to act as an effective deterrent and ensure justice is served.

Compensation should be commensurate with victims’ losses, which includes repealing arbitrary caps and restrictions such as those on unfair dismissal and breach of contract.

Failure to pay should be treated as an aggravated breach, attracting further penalties including criminal sanctions for the worst offenders.

The future of labour law; the future of the economy

THE UK today faces unique challenges — Brexit, increasing automation, international trade deals that threaten to undermine our public services and rights.

The IER Manifesto represents an opportunity to reformulate the economy to be strong, sustainable and rewarding for the many, not just the few.

The economic benefits of collective bargaining are well known — higher wages, higher consumer demand, increased tax receipts and reduced need for the taxpayer to subsidise workers’ pay with state benefits (most claimants are currently in work).

Labour is not a commodity, a fundamental principle of international law that underpins the IER proposals. The Manifesto for Labour Law will deliver workplaces, and an economy, fit for the 21st century.

Go to www.ier.org.uk/manifesto to order your copy of Rolling out the Manifesto for Labour Law. Share your support on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #ierManifesto.

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