Sunday, 4 December 2011

Workers under attack!

I was going to use this blog to reflect on the pension strike last week, but more pressing matters have arisen on which I feel I need to comment. Suffice it to say that as I previously predicted, it made no difference, cost thousands of people a day's pay and inconvenienced millions. What I couldn't have predicted was that the whole thing would be overshadowed by Jeremy Clarkson's crass and insensitive remarks. He clearly didn't mean them literally, but at what point in your life do you lose all sense of self-restraint to the point where you think that saying things like that is even acceptable, let alone funny?

Anyway, to those pressing matters I mentioned. Two pieces of Government thinking have surfaced this week, both of which attack workers' rights. One we already knew about, the other came as a bit of a surprise.

You're fired!

In the Autumn Statement, Gideon - sorry, George - Osborne - confirmed the Government's intention to weaken the protection currently available to employees against unfair dismissal. Currently, if you have been employed by the same employer for 52 weeks, the law requires that if you are sacked it should be for a potentially fair reason (redundancy, capability, misconduct, some other substantial reason) and that the employer must act reasonably in the circumstances (I'm paraphrasing the law for the sake of brevity). The Government intends to increase that qualifying time to 104 weeks. That means that for the first two years of your employment, your employer will be able to sack you pretty much on a whim, unless - and this is important - it is for reasons that are discriminatory on grounds of race, sex (including pregnancy), sexuality, disability or trade union activities, which don't have a qualifying period, and unlike unfair dismissals, don't have a statutory maximum on the amount of compensation that can be awarded.
It is difficult to understand what is driving this change. I've never heard an employer say they won't take someone on because they'd have to make a decision about sacking them within a year. I don't know an employer who would admit that they couldn't make a judgement about a member of staff in that first year.

I'm left concluding that this is ideologically driven. There are those on the right who have called for the concept of unfair dismissal to be abolished altogether. A step too far, even for this government, but this is a serious attack on employee rights. The law of unintended consequences may well come into play here. There is, as I said, no qualification period for discrimination claims and no limit on compensation awards, so we can safely expect to see a significant increase in the number of discrimination cases, which are often more complex for employers to defend and can cost them a great deal more.

Included within these plans are two other significant changes. For the first time, people wishing to make a complaint to the Employment Tribunal will have to pay a fee, only refundable if they win. In principle, one could argue that there's nothing exceptional about this, since there are fees involved in other court proceedings and it is true that there is a 'nothing to lose' approach to Tribunals by some applicants. Unlike in other courts, however, there is no legal aid available for Employment Tribunals. This can only be interpreted, therefore, as evidence of the Government's wish to liberate employers from the inconvenience of Tribunals.

Secondly, there is to be consultation on the introduction of 'protected conversations': a process for managers to speak to their staff about their performance 'off the record', and that conversation not being admissible as evidence at a future Tribunal. This is fraught with difficulties - which conversations are protected, is all of the conversation protected etc. It has been described as a charter for bullying managers and widely criticised by employment lawyers. This could go very badly.

Trade Union Representatives

Finally, I want to draw your attention to something that has, as far as I know, not been reported on at all. During Prime Minister's Questions this week, David Cameron said this:

" I do not think full-time trade unionists working in the public sector on trade union business rather than serving the public is right, and we will put that to an end."

On the face of it, what this means is that he plans to stop public sector organisations, such as councils, from allowing employees to spend their time wholly on trade union duties. This is nothing more than vindictiveness. Of course there is a cost involved, but having worked in local government Human Resources, I couldn't have done my job if union officials hadn't been available, sometimes at very short notice, to attend meetings, disciplinary hearings, negotiations etc. Some of them represented over a thousand members and could not possibly do so and hold down a full time operational role. Watch this one: if Cameron was serious, and wasn't just playing to the baying gallery, it could be another source of major conflict. The Taxpayers' Alliance, the Daily Mail and the Chipping Norton set will like it though.

Taken together, what I have described amounts to a full frontal attack on the rights of workers such as we haven't seen for many years. I fear there is more to come. What a contrast to the Con-Dems complete absence of any action to deal with the excesses of bankers and the boardrooms.


  1. *Everything* this government does is driven by ideology. It's amazing that without a clear mandate they're so right wing. Any Lib-Dems should be hanging their heads in shame.

    These latest moves almost read like a parody of Tory rule tbh. You can picture them stopod puffing on cigars and slurping down port with their friends the bankers and other Captains of Industry listening sympathetically to their complains about these "bleddy upstart workers" and "can't you do something?".

    I'm not far from the truth.

    Whilst we'll have to agree to disagree with regards the strikes, this is a good blog. Obviously well thought out and written. Keep them coming Mr. Cragg!