'It is all one-way traffic, designed to boost corporate profits, weaken worker rights and penalise trade unions'
The Conservative government is desperately looking for grounds for fighting the next general election. It can’t easily fight it on the economy as it has been stagnant. After 14 years of Conservative rule real average earnings have declined to 2005 levels. Household incomes have been squeezed by uncontrolled profiteering, high interest rates, cost of living crisis and taxes which are at a 70 year high.
It can’t campaign on promises to improve public services. The NHS hospital appointment waiting list at the end of October 2023 was 7.71m, compared to 4.5m in February 2020, just before the pandemic, and 2.5m in 2010 when the Conservatives came to office. Social care is teetering and people find it hard to access a NHS dentist or get prompt appointments to see a family doctor. The UK now has one of the lowest life expectancies among rich countries. So the government is busy manufacturing scapegoats for its failures.
One of these is to blame workers and trade unions for economic woes even though when it suited the government, Ministers applauded essential workers for keeping the economic wheels turning during the pandemic. Since then the Tory government returned to its true version with spiteful attacks on trade unions and antagonising workers in the hope of triggering a hostile response.
In the 2022 case of Harpur Trust v Brazel, the UK Supreme Court held that part-time workers are entitled to rights from Day 1 of their employment. As has become common, the government does not like court judgments and responds by changing the law. It has announced plans to cut holiday allocations and pay for nearly five million part-time and zero hour contracts workers. The government says that such rights would instead accrue during the course of employment. It is an invitation to employers to sack part-time and gig workers before the full entitlement of rights sets-in.
In March 2022, P&O Ferries sacked 800 workers without any consultation. In evidence to a parliamentary committee, P&O CEO admitted that the company knowingly broke the law by not consulting workers. The aim was to boost profits by cutting wages, and replacing workers with agency staff. The then Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parliament that the company has “broken the law” and the government would “take them to court”.
Instead, the government enacted the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022 and enabled employers to fire and replace striking workers with agency staff. This was challenged by trade unions and in July 2023, the High Court declared the law to be unlawful because prior legislation (Employment Agencies Act 1973) prohibited employment businesses from supplying temporary workers to cover the work of staff taking industrial action. The government did not undertake the required consultation to change the law.
The government did not appeal the judgment and therefore the regulations have been quashed. Once again, it is unlawful to hire agency workers to cover striking workers.
The government is now undertaking a sham consultation to override the court judgment, rewrite the law and create employment insecurity for millions of workers.
The biggest anti-trade union legislation is contained in the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023. There are no minimum service levels that ministers, government departments, companies or utilities must normally provide, but the legislation requires that during a strike, workers must provide minimum service levels defined by a Minister. Employers are required to inform trade unions of the names of workers needed to work during a strike and those refusing to cross the picket lines and work will be sacked without any compensation or right to appeal. Trade unions not forcing their members to work during a strike can be sued for damages by employers.
The sacked workers may be eligible for universal credits, tax credits, job seekers allowance and other benefits. If so, following the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill the government will be able to put their bank and building society accounts, whether in their names or joint names, under 24/7 surveillance without a prior notice. It will monitor transactions and unilaterally decide whether the recipient has breached any financial thresholds and is therefore not entitled to receive the benefits.
It is all one-way traffic, designed to boost corporate profits, weaken worker rights and penalise trade unions. There are no equivalent minimum services level obligations on employers. Companies can withdraw capital and close production facilities without any vote by anyone. For example, there is a lot of concern about closure of bank branches, but banks are not required to provide minimum service levels to any community, and no one can sue them for the damage caused to local communities or businesses.
The government misses no opportunity to cause industrial disharmony. Last week, it pushed the Trade Union (Deduction of Union Subscriptions from Wages in the Public Sector) Regulations 2023 through parliament. The background is that for years many union members paid their union subscriptions by permitting employers to deduct them from their wages and pass the amounts to the union. Such arrangements are commonly known as “check-off” agreements. These were helpful as many employees did not have a bank account. Since then many workers have set-up direct debits to pay union dues, but many still rely on the old check-off arrangements. The legislation now requires public sector workers to pay trade union subscriptions through other means or for unions to pay the employer in respect of its operation of the check-off system. The legislation is likely to have little economic effect but it illustrates the way the government continues to antagonise unions.
These are just a few examples of how the government is desperately trying to manufacture confrontation and create a terrain for its campaign for the next general election. It is restructuring industrial relations with a raft of anti-worker and trade union laws in an attempt to produce docile, impoverished and subservient workers. The government is closing judicial routes for workers and ministerial or employer words are the final ones. However, this is counterproductive and sours industrial relations. There is no reflection on the fact that insecure and poorly paid workers will not have the necessary resources to purchase goods and services and rejuvenate the economy.