“Cable announces plans to boost fairness for workers” declared the Government press release this week. It announces Vince’s latest Sweetex to disguise the sour taste of Tory government: a consultation process over zero-hours contracts (ZHCs) and a tasking of the Low Pay Commission to review the National Minimum Wage (NMW).
Widespread support exists for action on both zero-hours contracts and the minimum wage. Whatever benefits ZHCs offer in “flexibility” for small businesses and students can be preserved without multi-national corporations leaving breadwinners wondering whether they can feed their families. Whatever arguments are made of businesses going bust from having to pay workers an extra £1.26 per hour are the same rebutted claims aired against the introduction of NMW in 1998.
Yet potential successes will be insufficient when stacked against the unfairness created for workers by this Government and its predecessors.
First on the list for the Coalition was what should be one of the most basic rights – not to be unfairly dismissed. Last year, it raised the generally-required period of employment from one to two years before employees obtain protection from being unfairly sacked. This returned us to the 1990s, when the European Court of Justice held that the two-year period discriminated against women, being less likely than men to continue in the same employment for such time. The real question is why the fairness of a dismissal depends upon it occurring 729 or 730 days after starting the job.
Not content with that reduction of rights, Cable’s colleagues battled the House of Lords to allow employees to flog their right not to be unfairly dismissed. Employees can now trade their protection for shares in the company for which they work, but only up to a maximum of £50,000 and following a deliberately difficult safeguarding procedure demanded by the Lords. For the vast majority of employees who won’t convert their rights into shares, considerable fees to seek justice in employment tribunals await.
At the end of September, the Government’s latest assault on workers’ rights takes effect, when legislation laying down basic wage and working conditions requirements for agricultural workers ends. The Agricultural Wages Board – the sole survivor of its type – escaped previous Tory designs for its demise. Now farmers can sack and re-hire those workers whose contractual pay was set under the old regime. The Government itself estimates that the Board’s abolition will save £0.8m in administration costs over a decade, compared to the £259m of lost wages it will cause for some of the poorest workers in society.
These measures come on top of an already-weak system of protection for the British labour force.
Our law draws a distinction between “employees” and “workers” – so muddled and inconsistent that there is no agreed definition for what constitutes an “employee” and thus who is entitled to rights ranging from unfair dismissal protection, to continued employment after company takeovers, to payment for redundancy or paternal leave. Our protection for agency workers – who exist in larger numbers in the UK than anywhere in Europe – is restricted to those working for at least three months, and so excludes between one-third to one-half of those who need it. Our notoriously-hostile trade union legislation is designed to make going on strike a minefield of hurdles and pitfalls.
If Vince Cable is truly committed to “measures to inject more fairness into the workforce”, action on zero-hours contracts and the minimum wage is nothing more than the start. A raising of the minimum wage to a living wage would allow employers to enjoy the bureaucracy-free post-Agricultural Wages Board world whilst preventing an increase in poverty. A qualifying period of six months for unfair dismissal protection would meet the fetish for flexibility whilst safeguarding employees. A rebuttable presumption of employee status for a range of workers from cleaners to construction workers would increase certainty and reduce employers’ scope for creating sham arrangements.
Only then can Cable claim the pursuit of fairness for workers.