There’s just a week to go until Election Day. Party manifestos are online for comparison and have been scrutinised via the Leaders’ Debates on TV. Elections bring the economy into sharper focus and inevitably lead to changes in employment rights and responsibilities – so which party has the right approach to ensuring that labour rights are protected and commerce can advance the economy?
The key focus for the Conservatives is safeguarding the economy and building on the work they have already started – lowering unemployment figures, getting people back into work and rolling out Universal Credit. They claim to have reduced unemployment figures – 1.85m more people are in jobs since the Coalition started but it’s not clear how many of these are low paid jobs, zero-hours’ contracts or part-time work and whether this type of work should be included in the final figures.
The Conservatives claim that they are trying to keep employment law regulation consistent and easy to deal with as cumbersome paperwork and policy is a threat to the small businesses on whose support they rely. However, deregulation has led to widespread abuse of zero-hours contracts, an issue that needs rectifying and the introduction of employment tribunal fees has been heavily criticised for slowing the take up in claims – there were 70% less individual claims last year. The previous tribunal system was slow and ineffective so perhaps it’s time for a reform – a nominal fee is one suggestion, which would be means-tested.
• Raise the minimum wage to £7 per hour – this is lower than other parties.
• Getting rid of exclusive zero-hours contracts that restrict employees’ rights to work elsewhere.
• Renegotiate the terms of our membership to the EU. A British Bill of Rights will replace the Human Rights Act 1998 giving more powers to the UK.
• Strike action changes – a 50% minimum vote threshold for strikes to be lawful and criminalisation of certain types of picketing.
• Preventing trafficking of workers through the Modern Slavery Bill.
• Maternity pay for self-employed mothers – further details tba.
• Reduce ‘frivolous claims’ in employment tribunals, which they have done by introducing a fee to initiate one.
• Apprenticeships and skills – they have delivered 2m since 2010 and will continue to support this by extending Advanced Learning loans for apprentices.
Labour’s focus is on creating decent living standards and wages for all and giving workers a sense of security and progress through well-paid work and home ownership. They want to ban exploitative zero-hours contacts and stop agency workers from being used to undercut wages, and to raise and enforce the minimum wage and strengthen the economy by creating more highly paid, skilled jobs. They also want to reform the tribunal system and say they will introduce a new ‘industrial strategy’ to raise productivity, training and pay in low paid sectors.
Labour argue that the Tories have weakened employment rights through favouring the employer: creating a ‘hire and fire’ culture, introducing fees for employment tribunals, doubling the qualifying period for unfair dismissal, and weakening health and safety protection so that restrictive zero-hours contracts have become the norm.
Given the banking crisis of 2007-8 and the public perception of Labour’s ability to understand and manage the economy, they have some way to go to restore confidence.
Here’s what they propose to do:
• Raise the minimum wage to £8 by 2020. Employers who don’t commit will be fined and those that do in 2015 will receive a tax rebate. Listed companies will have to publish their pay scales to target Equal Pay rights. HMRC will also be given wider powers to investigate non-payment of holiday pay.
• Zero-hours contracts – employees regularly working set hours will automatically receive a fixed hours contract. A ban on exclusivity provisions and employers will have to pay compensation if shifts are cancelled last minute.
• A reform to the current employment tribunal system i.e. it will be means-tested rather than abolished.
• Trade union rights – a public enquiry into blacklisting in the construction industry.
• Protecting migrant agency workers – a new task force to target firms and agencies that encourage low skilled migration and pay less than the minimum wage. There will be no exemptions from equal treatment on pay.
• Increasing free childcare for working parents of 3-4-year-olds to 25 hours’ per week. Primary schools will be required to have breakfast and after schools clubs.
• Equal rights for self-employed individuals – further info tba.
• Introducing a Small Business Administration (SBA), which will have powers to ensure that regulations or requirements on small businesses are fair and appropriate. They are looking to support firms to help employees gain skills, compete on higher wage business models and access finance required to train staff. They will give the Low Pay Commission powers to set up taskforces examining what the obstacles are to raising pay in low paid industry sectors.
The Liberal Democrats are aiming to strike a balance between workers’ and employers’ rights. The UK has been criticised for a lack of regulation around protection at work and employees have received poor treatment, low pay and job insecurity, e.g. zero-hours contracts. Over-regulation is equally detrimental as it places burdens on small employers and dissuades them from employing staff. Jo Swinson, Minister for Employment Relations has introduced shared parental leave and extended the right to request flexible working so that women don’t have to choose between a career and parenting.
Reforming the tribunal fee set up is necessary – the decision to drop a free-to-use service and replace it with a fee-based model has been heavily criticised as it has led to less people taking up claims. The Liberal Democrats argue that their initial plan was to encourage an alternative means of resolution and so if fees are to be applied they need to means-tested and modest, possibly reimbursed by the employer and in any case, regularly reviewed.
Zero-hours contracts have their place and offer flexible working options for 2% of workplace, i.e. students, older people and those working up to 25 hours per week, but they currently favour the employer rather than the employee. Exclusivity clauses should be banned and employers could reimburse employees if they cancel a shift at short notice. People working regular hours for one employer should also be offered a contract of work and this hasn’t been the case up to now with employment agency work in particular.
• Increasing the national minimum wage for apprenticeships – a single, national minimum wage for 16-17 year olds in work and the 1st year of apprenticeships to stop discrimination against younger workers.
• A new Workers’ Rights Agency as a simplified information point for employees to seek advice.
• Anonymising public sector recruitment, i.e. taking names off application forms to prevent discrimination.
• Equal pay – access to information on pay rates in companies that employ over 250 people.
• A national Living Wage from 2016 onwards – figures aren’t set but they are looking to do an independent review.
• Paternity Leave – an additional 4-weeks’ parental leave for fathers taking it to six weeks with a ‘use it or lose it’ policy so that it can’t be transferred to the mother. They would like to extend the total parental leave to 58 weeks with six weeks reserved for each partner and the remaining 48 weeks shared.
• More workplace inspections to ensure legislation safeguarding workers’ rights is being upheld.
• Reviewing the level of tribunal fees.
• Fairer zero-hours contracts.
• Name blank job applications – all public sector jobs should have name blank applications to avoid ‘unconscious bias’. This could be done on a voluntary basis in the private sector.
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