#GE2017: Can Labour deliver security at work?

As part of our coverage of the UK General Election 2017, rs21 is publishing articles relating to Corbyn’s 10 Labour pledges. We are asking how the Labour pledges would affect the working class and those fighting for justice in various organisations and campaigns. 

In the first in this series, Unite activist and former General Secretary candidate Ian Allinson examines Labour’s third pledge of ‘Security At Work’.

Jeremy Corbyn addresses the crowd at a demonstration in September 2013 calling on the Conservative government to end the Work Capability Assessment. Photo credit: David Holt, Flickr.

For the first time I can remember, the commitments in Labour’s manifesto promise to significantly shift power in favour of workers. Nevertheless, this remains couched in the language of partnership and support for business and there are no proposals to legalise effective solidarity. This article will consider the changes Labour propose to make in people’s working lives. ‘Security at Work’ cannot be separated from other Labour pledges, particularly ‘Full Employment’, ‘Cut Inequality in Income and Wealth’ and ‘Action to Secure an Equal Society’. Equality and inequality are key workplace issues, while full employment and decent social security for those not currently in work enhance workers’ marketplace power (as Beverly J Silver has outlined). However, other articles are covering those pledges so I will only touch on them here.

Legislation

In response to Brexit, Labour would replace the Conservatives’ Great Repeal Bill with a Bill to ensure no detrimental change to workers’ rights, equality law, consumer rights or environmental protections results from Brexit. While Labour would immediately guarantee existing rights for EU nationals living in Britain and secure reciprocal rights for UK citizens living the in EU, they pledge to end free movement with EU countries – a set-back for workers’ rights. Labour plans to distinguish between refugees, immigrants joining families in the UK, and migrant labour.

The manifesto echoes one of Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey’s dodgy positions in saying Labour will “Ensure any employer wishing to recruit labour from abroad does not undercut workers at home” but not spelling out what that means. Why not ensure any employer wishing to recruit labour from anywhere does not undercut workers? Would this mean discriminating against workers deemed to be “from abroad”, whatever that means?

UK employment law offers greater protection to ‘employees’ than to other ‘workers’, who in turn have more rights than those who are self-employed. The Labour Party proposes to extend the rights of employees to all workers. All workers would have equal rights from day one. Agency workers currently only acquire limited rights after twelve weeks. The manifesto promises measures to tackle bogus self-employment, when employers pretend workers are self-employed to avoid giving them rights or paying National Insurance – a problem that is rife in construction and in the so-called ‘gig economy’. The burden of proof of self-employment would shift onto employers, rather than workers having to prove they are not self-employed. Payroll or umbrella companies (mechanisms for ripping off workers forced into bogus self-employment) would be banned. A commission including trade unions would modernise the law around employment status. Unpaid internships and zero-hours contracts would be banned. Workers on short-hours contracts who work more than their hours regularly for 12 weeks would gain a right to a contract reflecting their actual hours.

The manifesto recognises that the most effective way to maintain good rights at work is collectively through a union. It promises to repeal the Trade Union Act, give unions access to workplaces to speak to members and potential members, and expand the coverage of sectoral (i.e. industry by industry, rather than by individual employer or workplace) collective bargaining. There will be a review of union recognition rules to increase coverage. Labour promises to legislate for secure online and workplace balloting for industrial action and internal union elections – much better than the plans in the leaked draft. This would increase participation in elections, make the process more collective, and save unions the huge costs of postal ballots.

Union equality reps would be given statutory support and boosted by changes including requiring large employers to carry out equal pay audits, the adoption of the social model of disability (the idea that it is society, rather than their medical condition, that disables people by not meeting their needs), the addition of terminal illness as a protected characteristic, reinstatement of protection against third party harassment, the reinstatement of the duty of public sector bodies to promote equality, and possibly the extension of this duty to the private sector. British Sign Language would gain full recognition.

Consultation is promised on bringing pitiful UK redundancy rights more into line with European countries. There is a specific commitment to strengthen protections for women against unfair redundancy. The Tories’ 2014 weakening of TUPE protection for workers transferred between contractors will be scrapped, along with the Swedish derogation loophole, and a new requirement will be introduced for takeover proposals to include a plan to protect workers and pensioners. Labour wants a growth in co-ops, and plans to give employees the first right to buy their employer. The manifesto promises the reinstatement of the Agricultural Wages Board to underpin employment standards and wages in a sector with many vulnerable workers.

A slew of other improvements to individual legal rights are proposed, from raising the minimum wage for workers 18+ to the level of the living wage (expected to be at least £10 per hour by 2020), to increasing paternity leave. The proposal for four more public holidays has been widely misunderstood – whether you work public holidays or not this would increase the minimum paid holiday entitlement from 28 days to 32.

Labour wants a review of the pension age so that instead of rising beyond 66, it is flexible to reflect the contributions made by people (whatever that means), wide variations in life expectancy, and the fact that some jobs are arduous. There are proposals on more efficient workplace pensions, but these seem a bit vague.

Access to justice and enforcement

Enforcement is one of the major weaknesses in UK employment law. With few exceptions it is down to individual workers to bring claims (possibly with union backing). Workers or unions aren’t allowed to bring most claims on behalf of affected groups collectively, and the UK has no labour inspectorate to actively enforce workers’ rights. The Tories dramatically increased the impact of this weakness by introducing Employment Tribunal fees, which Labour promises to abolish, as well as considering reinstating legal aid entitlements after Lord Bach’s Access to Justice Commission submits its final report. Labour will create a new Ministry of Labour responsible for enforcement, give unions a seat on its board, and increase prosecutions and penalties. The manifesto also pledges to strengthen the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is being butchered by the current government.

Labour promises inquiries into Orgreave and blacklisting, and to release all papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24, flying pickets who were framed for criminal conspiracy following the successful building workers’ strike in 1972, and the 37 Cammell Laird shipyard workers.

The state as employer and buyer

As well as legislating, governments have a huge influence on work through public sector employment and £200 billion of annual procurement from the private sector (if you include local government). Labour wants to use public spending power to drive up standards.

By making the public sector the preferred provider, Labour intends to insource public and local authority services, as well as gradually nationalising rail, energy, water and Royal Mail. The manifesto promises to scrap the public sector pay cap and reintroduce national pay bargaining (schools) or a pay review body (NHS). However, a commitment to consider reintroducing a national pay structure for local government staff has been removed since the draft was leaked.

Labour says it ‘expects’ suppliers to ‘move towards’ a 20:1 maximum ratio of highest to lowest pay in the public sector and in companies bidding for public contracts, but no timescale is specified. Currently employers can legally pay £3.50 an hour to apprentices, £4.05 for workers under-18, £5.60 for 18 to 20 year olds, £7.05 for 21 to 24 year olds and £7.50 for workers 25 plus. A 20:1 ratio would cap salaries at about £160,000 for employers paying the lowest legal rates, but this would rise to £400,000 after the promised rise of the minimum wage to £10 an hour. How would those fat cats get by?

Public contracts would only be awarded to companies that recognise trade unions, and “high standards” would be required on issues including workers’ rights, equal opportunities and training. The secrecy surrounding privatisation would be partially removed by extending the Freedom of Information Act to private companies that run public services.

Conclusion

While hardly revolutionary, Corbyn’s proposals are qualitatively better than those of the Blair years.

New Labour justified all its measures on grounds of economic efficiency and were overwhelmingly focussed on individual rights. Fairness was to serve profitability, not the other way round. The exception that proved the rule was the provision in 2000 of a statutory route to win union recognition, which was implemented on such a pro-business basis that it failed to reverse the decline in the proportion of workers covered by collective bargaining.

The Corbyn manifesto, while not abandoning the tedious business justifications for policies designed to benefit the majority, contains proposals to use both the legislative and economic roles of the state to encourage workers’ collective organisation, ending decades of the state helping employers increase their power over workers.

The move to encourage sectoral and national-level bargaining is double-edged. Union leaders generally love the idea, as it centralises bargaining and provides a basis to expand bargaining coverage (and hence membership) without needing to organise and win workplace by workplace. But bargaining without organisation delivers little to members, and centralised bargaining is the hardest for lay members to influence. Activists would have to fight hard to ensure that improved access to workplaces is used to build real power, that unions devote resources to supporting that, and that strong activist structures are established to make negotiators accountable.

Many union activists, even if they are Labour Party members, are nervous about bringing divisive party politics into the workplace. But almost every workplace activist can find policies in the Corbyn manifesto which they can link to current issues or campaigns in their own workplace, which helps build the Labour vote. Whatever the result of the election, getting workers’ rights, and particularly our collective rights, onto the mainstream political agenda is a huge step forward.

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