An unprecedented attack on every aspect of working life

11th January, 2011 5:55 pm

Job centreBy Johanna Baxter / @JohannaBaxter

Almost a quarter of a million people have now been out of work for over a year the TUC said last month. That’s more than twice the number who had spent a year unemployed at the start of the recession. We’ve also just seen the largest month on month increase in unemployment since March 2009, much larger than recent months. And with an half a million jobs to go in the public sector, and a private sector that’s having many of its public sector contracts cut, that trend is only set to continue.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that if you were only able to stay in employment or secure another job quickly then you’d be protected from the worst of the economic downturn but it appears from recent announcements that this won’t be the case either.

Good work‘ – where an employee has employment security; work that is not characterised by monotony and repetition; autonomy, control and task discretion; work that provides a balance between the efforts they make and the rewards that they receive; the skills they need to cope with periods of intense pressure; strong workplace relationships and their employer observes the basic principles of procedural justice – seems now to be unattainable.

With inflation running far higher than earnings and many workplaces tolerating pay freezes and reductions in the number of contracted hours in order to protect jobs, many workers are suffering a real squeeze on their livelihoods. For those who remain in workplaces where colleagues have been made redundant it more often than not means an increased work-load and longer hours for less reward.

But it’s not just basic terms and conditions that are being hit.

Many millions of people will be detrimentally affected by the government’s new approach to inflation-proofing pensions and other benefits. Changing the indexation of pensions to CPI (which is some 0.75% lower than the RPI measure) will mean that the pensions of those affected will rise more slowly than would otherwise have been the case. The impact will be dramatically and cumulatively detrimental. All public sector pensioners will be affected. That’s some three million people who have on average pensions from their previous employment of just £7,800 (and, actually, half of all public sector pensions are lower than £5,600). Additionally, there are around nine million people entitled to a public service pension in the future who will all similarly be affected. Many pension schemes run by ex-public sector employers will be affected in the same way and many state benefits – including the state second pension – will also be reduced as a result.

The equal pay gap will continue to widen because of the government’s scrapping of section 78 of the Equality Act 2010 (which would have placed a requirement on employers to make voluntary arrangements to disclose whether they pay women less than men or face mandatory pay audits).

Buried in the detail of another announcement was the news that the Government plan to reduce the time period over which employers have to pay Statutory Sick Pay for those that qualify. This will only likely lead to an increase in unemployment, and therefore the costs of social security, as people are likely leave jobs they currently would have a higher chance of returning to.

At a time when unscrupulous employers seek to reduce cost through headcount on the cheap we now find that the government is planning to make the means of redress for unfair treatment even more difficult to come by. Currently to claim unfair dismissal an employee must have been continuously employed for at least one year at the effective date of termination of his/her contract of employment (with the exception of certain ‘automatically unfair dismissals e.g. where the dismissal is related to pregnancy or maternity). To increase this qualifying period to two years will be disastrous. Employment legislation is already weighted heavily in favour of the employer – in capability dismissals for instance the employer does not need to prove to a tribunal that the employee was actually incompetent, simply that they genuinely and reasonably believed that the employee was incompetent. Employees dismissed on such grounds will have no way of clearing their name of an allegation which may be completely spurious and it could seriously affect their future career prospects.

The proposal to charge employees to take a claim to tribunal fundamentally flies in the face of the premise on which the system is based – that an individual should not be deterred from bringing cases through fear of large costs. And the fact that the charge could vary between £30 and £500 depending on an initial view of the legal merit of the claim will also mean that a case could be prejudged before it has even made it to a hearing. This is not only unfair it is morally wrong.

The government states that this move is designed to reduce the number of vexatious claims, ignoring the fact that the tribunal service already has the power to deal with vexatious claims (requiring deposits, issuing cost orders or striking out claims) and that there has been little movement in the number of claims in previous years – the vast majority of the 236,000 claims submitted last year were multiple claims covering large groups of workers. Taking a tribunal claim is not an easy thing to do – the process is long, time consuming and stressful – and the vast majority of claims still get resolved pre-hearing.

If the government actually wanted to ensure that more cases were resolved before they went to tribunal, they wouldn’t have announced, as part of the review of the legal aid system in England & Wales, that legal aid would also be scrapped for all employment matters including legal help for getting advice in advance of employment tribunal proceedings.

Whilst these changes attack individual rights the rest of the labour movement is being hit too.

The often rumoured changes to Industrial Action legislation, requiring a minimum turnout in any ballot, would make it even harder (because it is hard enough) to take lawful industrial action where there is a legitimate dispute.

The Tories say the union movement is outdated, yet immediately they secure power they cut the Union Modernisation Fund. They praise the Union Learning Fund as a vital resource in providing individuals the skills they need to get back into work, yet cut its funding. They say the UK has a moral responsibility to help the poorest people in the world, yet only days after the TUC publishes a new five-year international development strategy setting out plans to raise wages and improve rights for some of the world’s poorest workers, the funding to their International Programmes is cut. They attack the rights of millions of individual union members to allow a small proportion of their dues to be paid into a political fund to campaign for jobs, pensions and employment, yet allow one rich non-dom to bankroll their election campaigns.

Is all this a surprise? Well, no, because this, by every measure, is a Conservative government. Those who pull the strings at No 10 are those who opposed every enhancement in employment legislation the Labour government gave us – even of course the national minimum wage. They have never been a friend of the worker or of the trade union movement.

Pragmatic trade unionists have continued to negotiate what they can for their members during these difficult times. They know that industrial action is a last resort. But they only have so many cards in their hand. Brendan Barber was right when he said that:

“This could well be the year that the country starts to say ‘no’ to government in a way that they have not since middle Britain made a previous Conservative government abolish the poll tax”.

If there is any hope of a change of direction from this government, and an avoidance of mass industrial action, trade unionists and Labour members need to support each other like never before. That’s why I’ll be marching at the TUC demonstration in March for jobs and encourage you to do so too.

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