What is the Conservative employment rights policy?
Although the Conservatives are talking about ‘fairness’, this doesn’t mean fair treatment at work. The new Conservative website documents no proposals on employment rights, apart from committments to ‘simplify employment law to make it easier to hire people’ and ‘reduce the burden of regulation’.
Alan Duncan’s recent conference comments provide some further detail. He supports the ‘three R’s’ for employment protections – review, repeal and redress – and wants to challenge ‘the regulatory creep from Europe’, stop ‘bonkers’ employment tribunal rulings and impose fees on workers who bring unsuccessful tribunal cases. George Osborne’s committment to reducing government advertising would also have a negative impact on employment rights: a reduction in publicity would mean that fewer people would (for example) know what the minimum wage was, enabling employers to evade it with greater ease. There is no fairness here.
European employment rights legislation has brought us ‘regulatory burdens’ including paid holidays, parental leave, equal treatment rights for part-time workers and workers on fixed-term contracts and protection from discrimination. Reducing this ‘regulatory creep’ would involve opting out of the Social Chapter, which in turn would require an amendment Europe’s founding treaties. This would be unlikely to be agreed by other countries, leaving the Conservatives with no choice but to leave the EU altogether. In the past, this has clearly been David Cameron’s view – although the new website does not set out an opinion either way.
It is within the scope of Government to review employment tribunal regulations – although the decisions that independent tribunals reach on discrimination cases are not under Government control. However, any administration with the slightest concern for workplace fairness would recognise that tribunals can already be costly and intimidating for workers (as documented on page 131 of the CoVE report), and that access to justice for mistreated workers is already too limited. Making these workers risk payment of a fee would simply give even more of a free hand to unscruplous employers.
However, at the same time as reducing rights, the Conservatives are committed to stronger legislation to prevent gender discrimination, provide a right to request flexible working to all parents with children up to the age of 18 and introduce a new package of parental leave. As far as I can see all of these positive commitments demonstrate the importance of employment regulations – which provide a framework to ensure employers operate fairly, and that workers get a fair deal.
The Tories may have revamped their website and be talking social justice, but their employment policies remain characterised by imprecision, contradiction and unfairness. There is no recognition of Government’s role in ensuring that people are protected from exploitation at work and promoting fair treatment, although there is a set of policies which would reduce workplace justice for vulnerable workers. At the same time, where the Conservatives are prepared to accept that regulation is positive, it is unclear how these pledges will be reconciled with a commitment to reduce regulatory ‘burdens’. Overall, these policies would increase injstice for hard working people and deny good employers a level playing field upon which to compete. Fairness does not seem to stretch very far.