Theresa May’s pledges to help workers are toothless without the abolition of employment tribunal fees

Since fees were introduced by David Cameron’s administration, there has been a drop of almost 70 per cent in the number of cases being brought – it can cost as much as £1,200 simply to bring a claim

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The Independent Online

Promising the “greatest expansion in workers’ rights by any Conservative government in history”, Theresa May today unveiled a raft of policies aimed at capitalising on disaffected Labour voters across the country. While the manifesto – due to be published this week – will not exactly be a rallying call for British workers to unite and cast aside the chains of capitalism, there are a number of eye-catching policies aimed at bolstering workers’ rights.

They include an array of policies, such as the right to request leave for training, a law for child bereavement leave, up to 12-months off for workers who are caring for family members, and further protections from discrimination for those suffering from mental ill health. All are welcome.

But there’s one thing that unites the policies: they are all quite meaningless without a pledge to reduce or even abolish employment tribunal fees. Others have been watered down to a point they are essentially voluntary for employers to comply with while others seemingly disregard low-paid workers.

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Take mental health discrimination in the workplace. If a person is unable to solve the issue informally with an employer by raising a grievance, then one option would be to complain to an employment tribunal – a tool for workers to uphold their rights. But since fees were introduced four years ago by David Cameron’s government, the Commons Justice Select Committee has warned there has been a “precipitate drop” of almost 70 per cent in the number of cases being brought – it can cost as much as £1,200 simply to bring a claim. Unless Theresa May’s team offers to reduce, or even abolish these fees then low-paid workers are essentially prevented from defending their rights. It renders many of the new provisions for workers meaningless.

Under the current system, claim fees for unpaid wages, redundancy pay and breach of contract can set a worker back £160 plus an additional £230 for a hearing fee. For other claims, such as unfair dismissal, equal pay, discrimination and whistleblowing, the claim fee is £250 plus £950 for the hearing. As David Allen Green, the legal commentator points out, tribunal fees mean, for some, the rights of workers are unenforceable.

The plan to have workers on company boards has also been extensively watered down. While the manifesto will include a commitment to increase representation for workers on company boards to “strengthen the voice of employees in boardrooms”, May has made clear she has no intention to force firms to do so. In a speech to Britain’s business leaders last year, she added: “First, while it is important that voices of workers and consumers should be represented, I can categorically tell you this is not about mandating works councils, or the direct appointment of workers or trade union representatives on boards.” It appears it will be a voluntary move for companies.

Shortly after taking office last summer, in a bid to encourage responsible business, May said there should be binding annual votes on executive pay. Unless May – coined as the “Ronseal Prime Minister” over the weekend – has a hidden rabbit in her manifesto then executive pay will also be notably absent. Labour has undoubtedly gone further in this area, pledging to introduce a pay ratio for firms with government contracts, preventing executives from earning more than 20 times the wage of the their lowest paid employee. 

Another of May’s 12 pledges for British workers is a new statutory right to leave work, unpaid, to care for a family member for up to 52 weeks, which the Government adds is “in line with other countries”. But for many – the “just about managing” and those struggling with day to day bills – taking time off work without compensation is simply not an option. It could be more radical. In Japan, for example, workers can take up to 93 days of family care leave per family member requiring care – and are compensated 40 per cent of their wage through employment insurance if their employer does not already compensate them. 

If May is to really park her tanks on Labour’s lawn, as the cliché goes, then her policies for workers’ rights need more substance. Starting with a reduction or the abolishment of tribunal fees, which she today defended during a Facebook Live interview with ITV, would give her policies credit.