A workers' wish list?

Morale in the British workplace is lower than in most other European countries, but recommendations to strengthen workers' rights have had a cool response from all quarters, says Alison Clarke
Click to follow
The announcement at last week's Conservative Party conference by Ian Lang, president of the Board of Trade, that the Government was considering clamping down on strikes in monopoly industries shows that employment issues are never far from the political agenda.

The idea that ministers could even consider lifting unions' immunity from being sued over disruptions is perhaps a measure of how far things have moved. It is therefore fitting that the Institute of Employment Rights, a left-wing think-tank, should publish what it calls "the most comprehensive review of employment law issues in this country for at least 30 years".

At 350 pages long, it is hard to argue with that claim. Working Life: a new perspective on labour law is packed with proposals to strengthen legal protection for workers and to set minimum standards at work, based on the principles of justice, fairness and democracy.

The report, which has been two years in the making, has had input from leading lawyers, academics and trade unionists, including heavyweights such as John Hendry QC. It argues for a new framework of regulation for the workplace to comply with international labour conventions, and calls for Britain to play a full part in developing European social policy, and to comply with EC labour standards.

But the report has already hit a brick wall, with the Shadow Employment Secretary saying that he refuses to return "to an era of impossible demands". Although David Blunkett said he had not studied the report in detail, it seemed to him "to be a combination of detailed research on the one hand and a 'wish list' on the other".

Even the TUC would not be drawn. A spokesperson said that "it would not be for the TUC to comment on the document" - but said it contradicted some of their proposals in "Your Voice At Work".

So has the institute overstepped the mark? Its director, Carolyn Jones, thinks not. "We are a think-tank, so we decided to think. It is up to the politicians to set limits."

Keith Ewing, the editor of the report and professor of public law at King's College, London, insists that the package "only seems radical because we have fallen so far behind. All we are trying to do is to rebuild the structures for collective bargaining which used to be in place and which exist in Europe today."

Among other things, the report calls for a statutory minimum wage, statutory holidays of four weeks a year, a limit of 48 hours a week at work and a statutory right to training, as well as a compulsory training levy on employers.

It argues for an extension to the current anti-discrimination legislation and for new initiatives to help workers with family responsibilities. There should be 18 weeks' maternity leave on full pay; four weeks' paternity leave on 90 per cent of salary and an additional 20 days' family leave for each parent with a child under school age.

As for recognition of collective bargaining purposes, the report recommends automatic entitlement for a trade union with the support of a prescribed number of workers in the bargaining unit. It should be lawful to take industrial action to persuade an employer to recognise a trade union, and lawful to take secondary action.

All current legislation relating to trade disputes should be repealed, and workers should be given the right to strike. Those who go on strike should not be found in breach of their contract, and should have protection from dismissal. It is for unions to decide whether to have pre-strike ballots, but the law should not require a ballot before a strike in support of a victimised trade union official, a unilateral variation of conditions by the employer, or refusal to cross a picket line.

All employment rights should apply from day one, except for cases of short-term service where a minimum threshold could apply. The proposals should cover all workers, but especially those working from home, and agency and casual workers.

Controversial? Yes. Radical? Maybe. But according to Keith Ewing, much of what the report recommends is taken for granted in other European countries, such as "the right not to be dismissed for taking part in lawful industrial action - a critical issue". In many countries, such as France, Germany, Sweden and Spain, the right to strike is protected in the constitution. And he thinks that it would be "unusual to find [another] country which prohibits all forms of secondary action".

None of which is likely to cut any ice with the Labour Party, which has already promised in its five-page document, "Building Prosperity", that there will be no blanket repeal of the Eighties legislation. There is little other flesh on the bones, except for a commitment to end age discrimination and the ban at GCHQ. Workers should have the right to be represented, and if a majority choose a trade union to represent them, there should be a legal obligation on the employer to recognise the union for limited collective bargaining purposes.

Meanwhile, the Government is considering further restrictions on existing employment law to prevent new recruits to small firms from making claims of unfair dismissal. This aversion to further regulation was echoed by John Stevens of the Institute of Personnel and Development. He was worried by the report's apparent assumption "that the whole of the employment relationship is based on law".

He said that most of the proposals in the report would add burdens on the employer "and make him think twice before taking anyone on". As for comparisons with European standards, Mr Stevens found them unhelpful since "the circumstances in much of Europe are not the same as here".

But perhaps employers and political parties should take note of a survey of 400 companies in 18 countries, which showed that after the Hungarians, British workers emerged with the lowest morale. Couple that with the longest working hours in Europe and the highest divorce rates, and it may be time to take a long, hard look at workers' rights in Britain today n

Alison Clarke is legal officer at the MSF union. 'Working Life', from the Institute of Employment Rights, 160 Falcon Road, London SW11 2LN, pounds 14.99.