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Labour Laws Fit For The 21st Century

The world of work has changed but the framework of laws regulating workplaces has failed to keep pace. The result? The UK’s labour laws are not fit for the modern world of work and require radical transformation.

Most workers can testify to the difficulties they face at work. But to ensure that future policy proposals are evidence-based, the Institute of Employment Rights brought together 26 leading labour lawyers and academics to gather evidence on the historical and international context of UK workers’ rights. 

The IER found that compared with EU workers, UK workers are amongst the most insecure, unhappy and stressed, enduring some of the highest rates of bullying, with amongst the least opportunities for making their voices heard at work. We work more hours per week, more days per year, more years before they retire, after which they receive lower levels of pension. We recieve less education and training, and (because of a lack of employer investment) their productivity is lower, damaging overall economic strength. Not to mention we get fewer paid holidays, less redundancy pay, sick pay and maternity pay. Here in the UK we experience a greater proportion in poverty than almost anywhere else in Europe, with CEOs of British companies earning a far higher multiple of their workers’ average earnings than in any other European State. 

So what’s brought us to this abysmal situation and how do we change it? Let’s first remind ourselves of some of the policy initiatives implemented in recent years. One of the most damaging policies was the Trade Union Act, 2016, which made it extremely difficult for workers to engage in lawful industrial action, leaving unions (like the CWU) open to injunctions regardless of the obvious level of support for action amongst members, demanding high turnouts in ballots while refusing to allow the use of electronic balloting. 

The introduction of a system of Tribunal fees making workers liable to pay £1,200 to bring a complaint against a bullying employer. That scheme was deemed to deny workers access to justice and ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. Less than a year later, the Conservatives expressed their intention to bring in a new fee scheme. The threat to justice remains live. Furthermore, the qualifying period for unfair dismissal protection was extended from one to two years, which, as the TUC pointed out, made 2.7m workers more vulnerable to being sacked for no good reason.

An alarming publication, Britannia Unchained: Global Growth and Prosperity, claimed that “The British are amongst the worst idlers in the world”. Its authors - Priti Patel, Dominic Raab,  Chris Skidmore, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwateng, all Cabinet Ministers in the last Government - reflects part of a worrying trend of ideologies hostile to workers. Not to mention, in 2012, the then Coalition Minister for Employment Relations, Jo Swinson, reduced the mandatory redundancy consultation periods from 90 to 45 days making it easier and quicker to remove workers from their jobs. The Conservative government insisted on retaining the public sector pay cap, just days before Scotland agreed to abolish it and despite popular pressure to end the freeze on wages. 

As December 12th looms, let's look forward to the kind of policies needed to drag our workplace practices into the 21st century.  To correct this shameful state of industrial relations, the IER recommends five simple steps to bring the UK’s framework of labour law up to modern standards, including: 

  1. The establishment of a Ministry of Labour with a seat at the Cabinet table to promote workers’ interests;
  2. The re-establishment of sectoral collective bargaining across major sectors of the economy to set minimum terms and conditions covering all workers in the sector;
  3. The introduction of a single, simple definition of “worker” to end bogus self-employment and ZHC contract abuses;
  4. Tull employment rights for all workers from day one and; 
  5. The creation of an independent Labour Inspectorate to enforce the law. 

Nothing too revolutionary. Most of the IER’s proposals are already in force in some of the most successful European economies and would do no more than bring the UK’s laws up to international standards.  A recent report from the ILO’s Future of Work Commission sets out 10 recommendations on how to protect workers from technological advances, climate change and demographic shifts- central to their recommendations is the notion that the new world order should be agreed through a collective bargaining process. 
It’s time to make that change in the UK.
By Carolyn Jones, Director of the Institute of Employment Rights