There is a huge hole where the government’s labor rights policies should be. But as ministers continue to waver over the rights push, Labor is beginning to fill this void. This week, the Labor Party announced a series of policies by establishing what it calls “a new agreement for the workers.” These Labor Party commitments stem from a litany of government rulings on workers’ rights.
Time and again, ministers have promised workers better rights and protections. We have had overt commitments, a revision and the promise of a employment bill. But almost nothing has materialized, just broken promises.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has exposed low wages and insecurity at the heart of our job market. Many of our key workers whom we all applaud, such as care workers, store clerks and delivery drivers, are stuck in insurance contracts. They face markedly higher Covid death rates and a triple whammy of low wages, weak entitlements, and little or no sick pay.
These workers are entirely at the disposal of their bosses and often do not know how much they will earn from week to week or if they will even be able to put food on the table. This injustice is there for all to see. And that’s exactly why Labor’s interventions on workers’ rights are so welcome.
Fighting unsafe work
Labor’s plans to give all workers except the truly self-employed the same floor of rights from day one on the job could be a game changer for workers. This is because the UK has a complicated set of laws, giving some workers more rights than others.
If you are an ’employee’, you benefit from enhanced rights. But if you are a ‘worker’, you will get only the most basic rights. ‘Workers’ tend to occupy more precarious and lower-paying jobs, many of them in the contract economy. On top of this, bogus self-employment, which is particularly prevalent in the gig economy, has been used as a cover to deny workers these very basic rights, including sick pay, minimum wage, and pay holidays.
The TUC has a long time order that all workers benefit from the same set of rights currently enjoyed by ’employees’. A single worker status would go some way to address the precariousness and low wages faced by many in the UK. Action urgently needed – recent research published by the TUC found that one in nine workers (3.6 million) works in insurance.
And he is a vote winner. TUC surveys revealed that more than eight in ten (84%) workers want all workers to have the same rights.
For many, the newfound flexibility of when, where and how to work during the pandemic is a prize they do not want to lose. Flexible work can include flexible hours (‘flex time’), compressed hours, staggered hours, annualized hours, and flexibility around school careers and other family and caregiving responsibilities, including taking care of children during school holidays. But all too often, employers turn down applications, especially from those in working class jobs.
All of this could be changed with the Labor Party’s plans on flexible working. Labor says it wants to give workers the right to work flexibly from day one of employment and place a duty on employers to adapt to this when there is no reason why a job cannot be done this way.
This is something the TUC has been drumming on. Allowing people more flexibility at work makes them happier, reduces absenteeism, and increases productivity. And, unsurprisingly, it would be popular. TUC research showed that more than four in five (82%) workers in Britain want to work flexibly in the future, rising to 87% among female workers.
Time to change
Of course, the new rights are worth little if you can’t enforce them. That is why it is so important that any push for workers’ rights is accompanied by strengthened collective bargaining powers and that unions have better access to workplaces. Andy McDonald, shadow employment rights secretary, in his recent article for LaborList, recognized this. Meanwhile, ministers are trying to wrap the unions with more bureaucracy.
So while the government remains in its hands when it comes to workers’ rights, the Labor Party is off to a promising start by establishing a transformative agenda for workers. It is also good policy. Eight out of ten of those who switched from Labor to Conservative in the last election said the government should protect and enhance rights in the workplace. Whether you ask voters at Red Wall seats or metropolitan city seats, making sure everyone can get a good job close to home is a priority.
The work is on a winning theme. But this is not the sum of our ambition for workers. It’s time to end the scourge of unsafe work by banning zero-hour contracts once and for all. We should hold bosses responsible for proving that a worker is self-employed and not the other way around. And to help end structural racism at work, it’s time for Labor to back the ethnic pay gap reporting.
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