Workers’ Rights, Gig Economy Take Center Stage in UK Election

Workers’ Rights, Gig Economy Take Center Stage in UK Election

In the lead-up to the upcoming general election on June 8, both of the UK’s leading political parties are positioning themselves as friends of the working class. Prime Minister Theresa May, in particular, is pledging a “new deal” for British workers that she describes as the greatest expansion of employee rights by any Conservative government, Sky News reports:

Mrs May, who is trying to position herself as the politician on the side of working people, will commit to increasing the National Living Wage – currently £7.50 an hour – in line with average earnings until 2022. The Conservative party did not say how much that would mean in real terms, although George Osborne, the former chancellor, said in 2015 he expected it to hit £9 by 2020. Labour has promised to increase the National Living Wage to £10 by 2020. …

Her package will also include a commitment to protect workers’ pensions in the wake of the BHS scandal; a new right to request leave for training purposes; a right to leave for workers who suffer the tragedy of losing a child; and the introduction of returnships for people coming back into work after a period of time off. Mrs May will also change the Equalities Act to extend protections from discrimination to those suffering fluctuating or intermittent mental health conditions.

May is also promising new protections for workers in the gig economy, which has come in for increasing scrutiny and criticism in the UK lately. These new protections, Sky reports, will be based on the findings of a commission headed by Matthew Taylor, a former advisor to Tony Blair who May appointed last October to investigate the major employment issues in the modern economy.

The prime minister also reiterated her plan to encourage (but not necessarily mandate) that employees of public companies have some form of representation on their boards. However, the BBC notes that May has faced criticism for walking back her initial proposal, which would have required that companies do so. In general, the BBC reports, the opposition Labour Party is naturally urging voters not to buy what May is selling:

Labour, which has repeatedly warned of the threat to workers’ rights posed by Brexit, dismissed the announcement. It argued the Tories had overseen an “era of non-compliance of employment law”, an “explosion in low pay and stagnating wages” and a “massive expansion in bogus self-employment”. It also said a pledge from Mrs May to put workers on company boards had been “watered down”.

Labour released its own election platform at the end of last month, including a promise to end zero-hours contracts and unpaid internships, according to the Independent:

The public sector pay cap which has left workers facing a £1700 drop in annual pay by 2020 will also be scrapped, while the minimum wage will be raised to match the national living wage, or at least £10 per hour by 2020. … Public sector employees and workers in companies bidding for public contracts are told they will benefit from a new maximum pay cap under a Labour government, meaning the highest earners can earn no more than 20 times the salary of their lowest-earning employees. Temporary and part-time employees will be granted the same legal rights as their full-time co-workers, the party leadership promises, while paternity leave will be doubled to four weeks and paternity pay increased. …

Other policies in the plan include four new bank holidays across the UK, which currently has the fewest public holidays of any EU country, and measures giving trade unions more power to collectively bargain on behalf of workers.

May called the snap election in hope of shoring up support for her government as it proceeds with negotiations over Brexit and attempts to implement its economic program; the Conservatives are currently leading in the polls, so she may well get her wish. Peter Cheese, the chief executive of the CIPD, gives a mixed reaction to May’s proposed platform to Rob Moss at Personnel Today:

“The right to request leave for training purposes is a welcome step, although more detail and consultation on how this will be applied is needed, especially as we have seen with flexible working that the right to request itself is not a silver bullet. The biggest obstacle facing people in developing new skills is falling employer investment in skills and workplace training, and with the growth of self-employment and contract work, and increased job mobility, how people will be supported for training and lifelong learning is a key question.”

Cheese said the CIPD was disappointed that plans to improve employee voice were not bolder: “Non-executive directors representing employees is unlikely to give workers enough meaningful voice in the workplace. We call on the next Government to commit to a more robust package of reforms, rather than a potentially tokenistic measure which may not deliver the changes we need to see.”

The CIPD recently issued its own vision of what it would like to see the post-election government do in terms of employment policy. Personnel Today’s Jo Faragher outlines the organization’s manifesto, which proposes publishing CEO-employee pay ratios, more rights for zero hours employees, and more investment in closing the skills gap:

The Manifesto for Work also calls for the following:

  • A pilot of revised Individual Learning Accounts, designed to encourage people to invest in their own lifelong learning, in collaboration with their employer.
  • A new voluntary target for 20% of FTSE 350 board-level executive directors to be women by 2020, with a view to achieving equal gender representation on boards by 2030.
  • Legislation to allow workers on zero hours contracts to request a minimum number of hours after 12 months of employment.
  • Voluntary human capital reporting standards to encourage more publicly listed companies to disclose how they manage their workforce.
  • A Know Your Rights campaign that would help inform people with different types of employment status to know their rights and entitlements “in order to tackle the lack of knowledge about employment rights in an increasingly fragmented world of work”.
  • A broadening of the apprenticeship levy to become a “training levy” with more flexibility around employers’ skills development requirements.
  • A full consultation on the impact of employment tribunal fees to ensure all workers have access to justice.

Cheese said that organisations have to restore trust by becoming more transparent, and measures such as human capital reporting would support that.