Labour forces vote on workers' rights

Labour and unions gear up for battle in fight against government plans to water down workers’ rights

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Labour will today (January 25) force a vote on workers’ rights after reports last week that the government was mulling over plans to rip up employment protections now that the Brexit transition period has ended.

Labour will put forward a motion in an Opposition Day Debate demanding that the government rule out the changes to workers’ rights that were first reported in the Financial Times just over a week ago.

The motion also calls on the government to put forward a time-table to introduce laws to end fire-and-rehire tactics which have become a common employment practice since the pandemic began.

Some of the changes to workers’ rights reportedly being considered included scrapping the working time directive, which mandates a maximum average 48-hour work week, ‘tweaking’ regulations on rest breaks, excluding overtime pay in holiday pay entitlement calculations, and scrapping the requirement for employers to log working hours daily.

While new business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng initially dismissed the Financial Times reports, he confirmed days later that the review of employment rights in the wake of the end of the Brexit transition period was indeed underway.

Still, he insisted that there would be no watering down of rights – despite a history of opposing them, as outlined in a book he co-authored called Britannia Unchained, which called British workers ‘among the worst idlers in the world’.

‘Taking away pay via the backdoor’

In a comment piece for the Mirror on Sunday ahead of today’s debate, Labour’s shadow business secretary Ed Miliband wrote, “Believe it or not, rather than prioritising securing our economy, protecting jobs and rebuilding a fairer country for working people, the Business Secretary last week confirmed they have been considering ripping up key employment rights.

“Scrapping these rights would see people – including many key workers – worse off, losing out on holiday pay and working longer hours,” he added.

Miliband explained how excluding overtime pay in holiday pay calculations in effect meant “taking away their pay via the backdoor.”

If this change were forced through, a carer, for example, could stand to lose £239 a year, while a delivery driver would be more than £400 out of pocket.

Construction workers, who typically also work a significant number of overtime hours, could stand to lose more than £2000 a year if the government changes rules on holiday pay calculations.

Fire and rehire

Labour and trade unions including Unite have called on the government to make good on its promises to improve workers’ rights – in 2019, the Tory government said it would bring forward an Employment Bill that gave workers additional protections but so far there has been no sign of the legislation.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly said he wants to ‘level up the country’ for workers across the UK – Labour and trade unions have highlighted that this attack on workers rights’ now under consideration flies in the face of the prime minister’s previous pledges.

The TUC said that far from eroding workers’ rights, the government should be working to strengthen them amid controversial employment practices that have become widespread during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially the practice of ‘fire-and-rehire’.

The TUC published a poll today (January 25) that found that nearly one in 10 workers have become victims of ‘fire and rehire’, where workers are told to re-apply for their jobs on worse pay, terms and conditions.

The situation is even worse for young and Black and Asian ethnic minority (BAEM) workers.

Nearly one in five workers (18 per cent) aged 18 to 24 reported that their employer tried to fire and rehire them during the course of the pandemic, while a similar number – 15 per cent – of BAEM workers reported the same. This was double the number of white workers.

The survey also revealed that one in four workers experienced some form of downgrading of their terms and conditions in the last year, including through reduced pay or changes to their hours.

‘We oppose any efforts to diminish rights’

Ahead of today’s debate on working rights, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey sent a letter to business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, the minister in charge of the review of workers’ rights.

In the letter, McCluskey highlighted how businesses themselves have no appetite for watering down workers’ rights.

“Unite is engaged with some 38,000 employers around the country, of all shapes and sizes, on a daily basis and I can confirm categorically that altering the basic legal rights of their workers is not their priority,” he wrote. “Instead, they tell us that they want stability, investment, improved skills across the workforce and the promised industrial strategy to lead to active government engagement with them in the support and renewal of UK industry.

“We oppose any efforts by the government to diminish the rights of the workers of this country, who have committed themselves fully to public service during this year of crisis despite the appalling behaviour of some employers,” McCluksey went on to note.  

“This crisis in one way has been predictable; it has seen opportunistic employers including British Airways, Heathrow Airport Limited and the Go Ahead group move to rewrite contracts, reduce wages and extend working hours. The ease with which they can do so, confident in there being no reproach whatsoever from the government, underlines that workers in this country are already the easiest to mistreat and make redundant among the European economies.”

He added, “A responsible government, committed to levelling up and arresting inequality, should be moving to prevent such abuses, not making them more likely.

McCluskey urged the business secretary to “not make the mistake of previous Conservative administrations of refusing to engage with the trade unions of this country” and called on him to “move swiftly” to involve trade unions in his advisory panel.

“Any moves that divide employers from their workforces, those who will feel the full effect of any subsequent government policies, only serve to sow the seeds of distrust and concern, which would be extremely unhelpful at any time but particularly so while the country faces profound enormous health and economic challenges that are best met collectively and positively, not with working people fearing attack.”

McCluskey also called on Kwarteng to undertake full equality impact assessments of any proposed changes to workers’ rights.

“As the row over Universal Credit reminds us, there are millions of working poor in this country and they are disproportionately women, black and Asian ethnic minorities, disabled and young workers,” he noted.  

“Attacks on working time, are highly likely to make the lives of these workers and that of their families even harder,” McCluskey continued. “Longer working hours are certain to lead to pay cuts, putting many below the legal minimum wage. Longer working hours also put health and safety at risk because exhausted workers are unsafe workers, and will place rest and family time under immense stress. These consequences must be fully considered and be fully and publicly disclosed.

“Job insecurity, low skills and low wages are endemic in this country. For our people and economy to thrive, I would urge that government focuses its efforts on addressing these very real challenges, not on divisive, potentially discriminatory and fear-inducing plans to revise workers’ rights, for which there is no clamour.”

By Hajera Blagg

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