Workplace rights have been hard-fought for and no circumstances on earth to justify whittling them away in exchange for financial bribes. So you can imagine how disappointed I was reading Vince Cable, in today’s Lib Dem Voice, defending George Osborne’s plan to roll back the centuries of worker protection.
When Osborne announced his plan during the Conservative party conference political commentators initially assumed the Business Secretary would be against the idea because Cable had earlier opposed the ‘hire and fire’ report from Adrian Beecroft, which proposed bosses should be free to sack whoever they wished without fear of legal or tribunal action.
But writing on LDV today Cable appears to back Osborne by explaining the Tories are proposing a “voluntary” scheme that does not go as far as Beecroft. He wrote:
[The Chancellor's] proposed scheme, targeted at small companies, is entirely voluntary and cannot be forced upon employees. It would offer employees shares (from £2,000 to £50,000) in their business in exchange for certain employment rights. The shares are Capital Gains Tax free – which if the company grows extremely fast is a valuable offer.
Forfeiting workplace rights on a “voluntary” basis looks like very much like the thin end of the wedge. Once you start hacking away at rights a precedent is set to go further, as many Tories no doubt dream of doing.
As for the scheme being voluntary; the hard reality is that many hard-worked employees, fearful of losing their jobs in the next downsizing, will take up any offer to curry favour with their bosses and dodge an ever-lengthening dole queue.
David Mitchell, writing in yesterday’s Observer, put it another way:
“You don’t need those pesky rights,” the chancellor seems to be saying. “You don’t need cover against unfair dismissal or redundancy – that’s for the sort of loser who gets unfairly dismissed or made redundant. That’s not you, you don’t need flexible working rights – you want to get on. You just need money, a stake in the company. Come over to the other side – join the strong: the shareholders, the rights withholders.”
Pressure on staff – especially in non-unionised workplaces – could be enough to persuade them to hand over their rights when they would otherwise refuse to do so given a genuine choice. And we’re not even talking explicit pressure; just a rumour that Human Resources like the idea, and that they’re also looking to make savings, would be sufficient to kick-in staff self-preservation strategies.
Cable claims that “this is categorically not a case of us allowing no-fault dismissal”. We will have to see how no-fault dismissal compares to unfair dismissal in legal terms, but even if Osborne’s scheme absolutely rules out any forfeiting of rights to action against unfair sackings the very fact that the Government is heading down this road will surely mean this is next workers right to face the firing squad.
It is exactly the sort of assault on workers that many feared this generation of Eton and Oxbridge-education Thatcherite neo-Cons would drive forward in a pure Conservative majority Government, but precisely the opposite we expected from their Lib Dem partners. If Lib Dems are the brakes on the worst Tory tendencies it appears as if the brakes have failed on this occasion.
Labour laws – and those health and safety laws much maligned by the Right – took shape in the 19th Century as the ordinary working man and woman’s defence against blatant exploitation of the capitalist class. David Lloyd George’s Liberals have a proud tradition in this field with the Trades Disputes Act 1906, the Old Age Pensions Act 1908 and much more. Osborne’s plan to roll back workplace rights runs contrary to this proud Liberal legacy of workplace fairness.
With structural employment predicted to remain high for the next decade as the economic slump bumps along the bottom threatening to turn into a triple-drip recession, and as the Chancellor calls for an additional £10 billion in extra welfare cuts, we are living in an age when the average man and woman is not so much being squeezed as ground into the dirt.
Those lucky enough to have jobs are living in fear, and many employers are exploiting this. It is in this context that we must view the Osborne plan to shave away workers rights, just as Thatcher went to war against the unions in the early 1980s. Past and present Tories are following the same path of stripping away employees protection, be it workers collective power or collective rights.
It’s not like there’s a logical argument for it. As Simon Caulkin pointed out in The Guardian, there is no evidence that reducing worker rights boosts economic performance:
The notion that UK workers need less protection is simply wrong. The UK is already near the bottom of the OECD’s employment protection league. UK employees work longer hours, are more likely to work part time and get proportionally half the employment benefits of the average. In any case, there is nothing in the OECD figures to show a correlation between low employment protection and high economic performance. Rather, the reverse: greater protection seems to go with better economic performance.
Let’s not forget that the Government have already announced new charges to take out an employment tribunal from £160 to £950, yet another prong of the fork stabbing workers in the hind-quarters.
Add to that plans to significantly weaken whistle-blower protection in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill with a new ‘public interest’ test and a full picture emerges of the rich and powerful applying the screws on workers against a background high unemployment and fear.
Leaving aside the question of unfair dismissal what other rights are in the frame? The Independent reported this month:
From April next year, companies will be able to offer existing staff between £2,000 and £50,000 in tax-free shares if they surrender their rights to claim unfair dismissal, to redundancy pay, to request flexible working and time off for training. Women on maternity leave would have to give 16 weeks’ notice of returning to work, rather than eight weeks as at present. In return, these workers would not pay capital gains tax on any rise in the value of the shares when they sold them.
New firms could make such contracts compulsory. People working for existing firms could not be forced to sign them – but new recruits could be made to, under legislation to be rushed through Parliament. Workers who gave up their employment rights would not be able to change their minds and exercise them in future unless their employer agreed.
The Government may have backtracked on the compulsory element but it is still horrifying that valuable rights like redundancy pay, flexible working, training and maternity rights could be given away in exchange for shares that may be worthless if the firm collapses – as many do. And what about protection against claims of racism, sexism etc? I fear for the worst.
The Osborne’s announcement looks like a watered-down Beecroft snuck in through the back door. Workers rights should be sacrosanct and, as Caulkin argues, need to be strengthened rather than thrown away. Instead of backing Osborne, Vince Cable would do well to summon up the spirit of Liberals past and draw a red line in the sand and declare that the centuries of blood, sweat and tears that led to our present labour laws have not be in vain.
We Lib Dems must say ‘no’ to privilege and exploitation and ‘yes’ to upholding our rights for ordinary working people.
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway