Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps MP has said that a future Tory government will reform employment law to make it easier to sack workers without employers having to invent “disingenuous reasons” to be rid of employees. Shapps has admitted that he found legal niceties like respecting people’s employment rights and treating employees fairly to be inconveniences when running his own printing company. His comments come on the heels of changes that that Coalition has already introduced to employment law which sharply curtail the rights of employees. These include doubling the qualifying period for employment rights from one year to two years, introducing fees of up to £1,200 pounds to take an employer to a Tribunal and allowing for “protected conversations” to take place, which will be a license for unethical employers to bully and intimidate employes without fear of legal recourse.
The Tories are quickly moving employment arrangements into what is effectively the doctrine of “employment at will”. This is the prevailing legal rule in the United States, and provides that either party can immediately terminate the employment relationship at any time, without any advance warning and with no subsequent legal liability (with limited exceptions, for example in the case of unfair discrimination on the basis of race, sex or disability). The practical effect of this is to give all the cards in an employment relationship to an employer.
Defenders of “at will” employment arrangements argue that employers are more willing to hire workers if it is easier to let them go. There is some truth in that argument, but “at will” employment laws come at a high price. Workplace relationships are key elements in the day to day lives of most people, and “at will” employment laws create an environment where workers have little power or recourse in the event of unfair treatment. We must decide whether we want the UK to be a country where the powerful can do what they want without any accountability or whether people have basic legal rights to fair treatment and respect in the workplace.
There also is a high price to be paid in terms of low wages and standards of living, including a cost to the taxpayer via the benefits system. A glaring example of an employer that exploits “at will” employment arrangements and other aspects of US employment law is Walmart, which is the largest private employer in the US. The retail giant is ruthlessly anti-union and has managed to keep unions out of all 4,000 of their US stores. As a result, Walmart employees are paid low wages and receive poor health care benefits (which in the US are a key aspect of employment due to the lack of a state-run healthcare system), and many Walmart employees have to rely on state assistance to buy basics like food. Walmart’s low wages encourage a “race to the bottom” in terms of wages in markets where Walmart is strong, which is bad for all workers. To make matters worse, Walmart is actively opposing living wage laws.
Employment rights are an area where there is a clear dividing line between Coalition policy and Labour values. Labour must make a strong case to the electorate that Tory policies are bad for workers, bad for our standards of living and bad for the taxpayer. They also conflict with basic justice and fairness, and the sort of society that we want to have in the UK.
Todd Foreman is a dual US and English-qualified lawyer, and is the Labour Party’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for North East Somerset