Ministers must not break their promise to protect and enhance workers’ rights

Tim Sharp
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

This government went into the last election having promised to protect and enhance workers’ rights. But reports in today’s Financial Times suggest that rules around holiday pay and working time could be ditched as part of a labour law overhaul.

Make no mistake. This is not minor tinkering. Hard-won protections relied on by workers for years – particularly those in insecure jobs – could be in jeopardy. So what is at risk?

Holiday pay

Holiday pay appears to be at the top of the chopping list. Under EU law, workers are entitled to four weeks’ holiday pay a year, which UK law bumps up to 5.6 weeks by adding bank holidays to the count.

But workers have had to take court cases to force employers to include overtime and commission payments in their calculations. Judging by today’s leaks, these protections, which are particularly important for those working shifts or irregular hours, could be among the first to be rolled back.

Working time

Other working time rules designed to protect workers’ health and safety are also under threat. These ensure that workers can rest between shifts, receive meal breaks and should have a working week of now more than 48 hours. They are crucial for health and safety.

Despite these safeguards, there is still evidence that UK workers put in more hours than elsewhere in Europe. It’s completely bogus to say that removing them will boost productivity.

Agency workers’ rights

Agency workers are another vulnerable group. Rights based on EU law aim to ensure such workers receive equal treatment on pay, holidays and working time after 12 weeks in the job. They are also granted equal access to facilities like toilets and canteens.

Last year the government finally closed a loophole that allowed some employers to pay agency workers less than permanent staff. Watering down these rights would be a sop to bad employers who want cheap labour.

Britannia Unchained

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was quick last night to reiterate his commitment to “protect and enhance” workers’ rights. But workers have a right to be wary.

Kwarteng was also a co-author, with others now in government of the notorious Britannia Unchained pamphlet that proclaimed: “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world.”

The public want stronger rights at work

After the last election, the TUC conducted a 3,000 poll of voters. The findings on workers’ rights were crystal clear:

  • Nearly three-quarters (73%) of voters said the government must protect and enhance current workplace rights guaranteed by the EU, like paid holidays and rights for temporary and agency workers.
  • This was supported by two-thirds (65%) of people who voted Conservative in 2019, and by eight in ten (79%) of those who switched from Labour to the Conservatives.
  • The vast majority of voters (71%) also wanted new rights for gig economy workers, including the majority (65%) of Conservative voters and those who moved from Labour to the Conservatives during the election (78%).

There is clearly no public appetite – especially among ‘Red Wall’ voters – for any watering down of rights at work.

Time for action

To allay workers’ fears, the government needs to back up his fluffy rhetoric with action. The Queen’s Speech straight after the last election promised an employment bill. It is time for the government to bring this legislation to parliament.

If it is short of ideas, the TUC has a few:

  • Ban zero-hour contracts
  • Make flexible working a day one right
  • Ten days’ paid carers’ leave
  • Ethnic minority pay gap reporting
  • Trade union access to workplaces

The country is going through the worst crisis in generations. Many insecure workers, including care workers, delivery drivers and shop staff, have been at the forefront of keeping society going.

Ministers need to put a marker down that the country won’t repeat the mistakes of the last downturn in 2008 and allow insecure, bad jobs to spring up in the place of good ones. Some ministers might want to forget the government’s promise about enhancing workers’ rights. But trade unions will not let them.

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