Apparently the Government’s moves to increase the qualifying period before people can lodge unfair dismissal cases will “be designed in a way that protects access to justice by vulnerable workers“. But back in 2008 the TUC’s Commission on Vulnerable Employment (CoVE) concluded that access to justice for vulnerable workers was already very far from protected. Life at the bottom of the labour market is already extremely tough, with basic rights that many of us take for granted regulary withheld and job security extremely poor. The case studies set out by the Fair Work Coalition show how desperate the employment conditions of the most vulnerable workers can be. The Government’s implication that further cuts in rights at work can somehow protect access to justice is simply offensive.
CoVE identified that, even with protection to unfair dismissal protection after one year (for employees), many vulnerable workers were still facing summary dismissal with no justifiable cause. This study (a survey of CAB and Law Centre employment rights advisers up and down the country), which was commissioned by CoVE, found that:
- 79 per cent of advisers were contacted weekly or more frequently by workers who had been unfairly dismissed making unfair dismissal the largest problem area that advisers dealt with. 19 per cent of advisers encountered workers who had experienced unfair dismissal every day.
- Respondents reported the frequent incidence of employers who were ‘repeat offenders’, regularly dismissing staff without justification. Repeat offenders tended to be smaller businesses in sectors such as retail, hospitality and private services.
- Advisers identified a reduction in the one-year rule qualifying for unfair dismissal rights as a key area for reform to support vulnerable workers.
Advisers reported cases of women being sacked for asking for time off for ante-natal care, of low-paid workers being sacked because they asked for payslips, of workers being sacked because they moved out of expensive employer provided housing and of workers being sacked for requesting health and safety equipment. Further reducing the protection that these workers have will simply make their lives, and those of their families, far worse.
CoVE also found that, even for the minority who had the right to unfair dismissal protection and successfully managed to challenge an unfair dismissal decision, many never received compensation – their awards simply went unpaid. 28 per cent of advisers suggested that this was commonly the case and their views were subsequently backed up by research commissioned by the Ministry of Justice which found that 39 per cent of successful tribunal claims go unpaid.
Last year the TUC exposed the Red Tape Delusion, demonstrating that across the world there is no evidence that reducing employment rights does anything to boost growth or employment. Economic growth is contingent on demand – if no one is going to buy corporate goods or services what is the incentive to boost production and recruit, regardless of what rights the workers you take on will have? At any rate employers can already sack with relative impunity for up to a year – do they really make hiring decisions based on the risk of not adequaltely assessing employee performance over a 24 month period? And think about what happened to the economy when, in the late 90s, Labour reduced the qualifying period for unfair dismissal protection from two years to one – we had a decade of sustained growth and the lowest unemployment rates for years. As CIPD said when this proposal was floated last week:
The fall in UK private-sector employment during the recession was purely the consequence of inadequate demand resulting from the global financial crisis rather than because of some underlying problem in the functioning of the labour market. The critical determinant of private-sector employment growth in 2011 will in turn be the extent to which net exports and investment offset slower consumer spending and the planned cuts in public spending and tax hikes
It will be interesting to see what evidence BIS produces to suggest that reducing protection for working people will do anything to increase jobs – I doubt they will find any. If anything we may see some declines in productivity as employers pay less attention to who they hire, invest less in the skills of their staff and expose their workers to more health and safety risks.
Mervyn King was right to highlight that working people are already facing a huge squeeze on their living standards. Today’s Government announcement will do nothing to address the significant chanllenges that working families now face, reducing workers’ security at work while doing nothing to secure the growth that will allow earnings and employment to rise.