Despite an outward stress on the necessity of work, the coalition government have helped to garner an employment landscape of insecurity, poverty and low worth. Welfare policy and employment laws changed over the last two years have been crucial in creating a power imbalance in favour of employers, ultimately damaging employee worth, status and work life.
At the beginning of this year, David Cameron announced plans to make it easier for employers to fire workers. By increasing the length of service from one year to two before a hearing can be called following dismissal, and by reducing the sick pay, redundancy pay and compensation amounts employees can claim for, Cameron said that these relaxations in employment laws would make companies see less risk in hiring more people, and this would also ‘get rid of the bad’ to let in the skilled employees.
However, allowing employers to fire employees more easily by cutting red tape does not solve the problem of a lack of jobs. Further, the report that David Cameron commissioned from Adrian Beecroft in support of law relaxation was admittedly based on a ‘hunch’ rather than economic proof or explanation:
“Quantifying the loss of jobs arising from the burden of regulation, and the economic value of those jobs, is an impossible task…How many more businesses would there be, how many people would they employ, how many more people would existing businesses employ, how profitable would all these businesses be? Who knows?”
Yet, Cameron pressed to apply these measures, insisting that America had relaxed it’s laws and seen a drop in unemployment. But, while the US remained relatively stagnant in it’s position, Germany halved it’s unemployment figures whilst maintaining much stronger laws and regulations for employers.
Whilst Cameron was forced to retreat on these plans by deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the subject has surfaced again a few times, with support from Vince Cable and some Tory Ministers. Still, changes to laws like this during a fragile recovery will only cause anxiety for workers who feel the threat of losing their jobs on top of the hardship of the current climate. It also assumes the employer acts in employee interests which has been disproven time and time again, says lawyer Edward Cooper:
“An underlying assumption in these proposals is that employers all act reasonably. We see day in and day out that employers do not always act reasonably, especially when there is money to be saved.”
Despite these proposals being put on the back burner, changes to employment tribunal fees were passed in July this year, meaning that employees seeking justice, investigation, hearing or tribunal would now have to pay to have their case heard. Again, at a time of fragility for the market, this put employees on the back foot should they be treated unfairly by their employer.
Under the new rules, it would cost £160-250 to lodge a claim and a further £230-950 if the claim goes to court, which is usually the case with claims such as unfair dismissal or discrimination. The Ministry of Justice also charge £1200 for a full hearing if people want to challenge the decision of an employment tribunal.
Government have said that these fees were brought in to encourage ‘mediation’ and negotiation without the Courts, in the hope more cases could be settled outside the legal system.
However, these fees are attacks on the employee’s rights alone, and only make it harder for employees to fight companies who often already have the upper hand. The fees give companies more leeway to treat employees unfairly, in the hope they cannot afford to bring them to justice. For some grievances, the cost is more than the money an employee feels they are owed, but could count highly as a case for morality or discrimination and be important in ensuring a company is reprimanded for treating someone unfairly.
Despite the fees now existing, trade union Unison has won the right to take the case to judicial review, in the hope the fees will be lifted. Unison, with the support of the Human Rights Commission, argue that the fees make it impossible for workers to exercise their rights. The Ministry of Justice have vowed to refund all fees should Unison win the case.
Dave Prentis, Unison General Secretary said the fees “give the green light to unscrupulous employers to ride roughshod over already basic workers’ rights.”
The hearing continues.
As well as these changes to laws, the government have implemented their own damaging schemes, which are currently taking their toll on the employment market. Welfare-to-work schemes which incorporate workfare policies are forcibly sending unemployed people to work for 30-60 hours a week for their unemployment benefit or they risk sanctions or withdrawal of benefits.
Minster for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith insisted these policies were designed to allow people to gain work experience to secure future employment. However, the schemes have just widened the already burgeoning ‘work experience’ and ‘intern’ industry which already operates cruelly in the fashion, media and music world and employs an entire workforce of free labour for the same, often unlikely, chance of employment at the end.
Whilst gaining months of free work experience was once expected if you wanted to get into a much sought after industry, now workfare policies insist they are required for minimum wage jobs stacking shelves. As the interns of the music and media industries are trying to gather to gain some rights and protection against being exploited by companies and employers, the welfare-to-work programmes are normalising work experience for the low paid. Entry level jobs are beginning to carry work experience criteria, and the free workforce donated by the government rotates to feed a steady supply of workers to companies. This sort of policy replaces paid jobs with free labour. It devalues work and treats workers as commodities. It creates higher barriers to work by insisting on months of free work for minimum wage jobs.
Thus workers are desperate, and employers are often only happy to exploit this, as we have seen in the prevalence of the zero hour contract. Sports direct used these contracts for over 90% of staff. They offered no holiday or sick pay, and did not have to guarantee any hours. To ensure employees would take home money, they would have to take any hours the employer asked of them, at whatever short notice. Giselle Cory of the Resolution Foundation said in an interview with RealFare earlier this year, that these contracts were also found to be used as management tools, to punish employees if they did not take on work when and as the employer demanded:
“But what we see actually, is that these contracts are being used to disempower the employee. We’ve seen evidence of really bad management practice where someone is on a zero hour contract, their boss says ‘I want you to work Saturday.’ They might say ‘I can’t’ or ‘I can’t get childcare’ for example, or ‘I would simply rather not’, and they are zeroed down, which is effectively where they’re pushed to very few or no hours in the medium or longer term. So that’s in effect, using these contracts as a management tool, when that’s not what they’re intended for and that’s a great imbalance of power between the employer and the employee.”
And with the rise of these contracts we also see the worst rates of underemployment on record, with 1.46m people in part time work in need of more hours. Thousands of people are desperate for work and so many take on any contract and terms they can. This is at the expense of their rights and their home life as work may demand availability at any time. Many are at the mercy of employers to work at short notice and so sacrifice plans, commitments, family time for minimum wage jobs that offer them no security or help should they fall ill or need time off. The imbalance is clear.
And the government’s moves have made it easier to exploit employees, and treat them as disposable. The priorities have not been to make a secure employment landscape for people in the recovery but to allow employers to use and abuse at will. Whilst the government and media rhetoric has made it shameful not to work, employers are made to feel no shame for making workers poor on time, worth and money.
by Kam Sandhu – @KamBass