The so-called “party of workers” shows its true colours today
01 March 2017
By Sarah Glenister, National Development Officer, Institute of Employment Rights
On taking the mantle of Prime Minister last year, Theresa May attempted to rebrand the Tories the “party of workers”. The outcome of the referendum had been widely interpreted as a battlecry from a much maligned working class. Meanwhile, a rising tide of exposes in the national press had horrified a nation by revealing Dickensian conditions at major employers like Sports Direct and Amazon.
For the Tory leadership, it was time to look like they cared.
And so, the same politicians who repeatedly weakened employment law since entering government in 2010 have spent the last six months waxing lyrical about workers’ rights. The Taylor Review was launched to investigate the gig economy, alongside some tokenistic nods to discouraging excessive executive pay in a consultation on corporate governance. But today we are reminded of the Tories’ true colours with the implementation of the Trades Union Act 2016.
The Act, which is deemed so “divisive” and “damaging” by Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones that he is trying to repeal it as far it affects the Welsh public sector, brings into effect some of the most draconian anti-trade union laws the UK has seen for decades.
Trade unions will struggle to hold unscrupulous employers to account as their most effective bargaining chip is all but taken from them - the ability to take industrial action.
Workers can now only call a strike if 50% of those eligible to vote in an industrial ballot turn out to do so; and those in “important” public services must also reach the additional threshold of 40% support among all workers eligible to vote. The government ignored the international standard of “essential public services” , to opt for its own much broader definition so that it could include huge swathes of workers in the transport and education sectors.
Should trade unions manage to overcome these hurdles , they will now have to give double the notice to employers of their intention to strike (two weeks instead of one) unless the employer agrees to a shorter notice period; and if they do not take action within six months (up to nine months with the agreement of the employer), they will have to re-ballot their members. What greater motivation might an employer need to string out disputes until the time limit is up? Rather than reduce conflict, this law encourages it.
Should they jump through these additional hoops, new picketing rules require an easily identifiable supervisor at each picket, who must carry a letter of authorisation to be shown to the employer by request, and who must inform the police of his or her name, contact details and location of picket before the strike.
Elsewhere, labour movement regulator the Certification Officer (CO) has been granted greater powers to investigate reports of breaches to the rules governing trade unions - and those who make such reports no longer need to be a member of the trade union in question. The CO may then impose fines of up to £20,000. This extra workload will, of course, be funded by trade unions themselves. Outgoing CO David Cockburn criticised the new powers for putting trade unions at risk of vexatious complaints from “persons and/or organisations seeking to pursue them for industrial, political or other purposes”, and cautioned that the new CO role of “investigator, prosecutor and adjudicator” may be in contravention of the Human Rights Act 1998, which provides for the right to a fair trial.
Public services are also now required to publish information about the facility time taken by trade union representatives and the government reserves the power to place caps on this time.
In every way it can, the government has attempted to silence trade unions - the traditional mouthpiece of workers - and remove from them the leverage they need to redress the imbalance of power between employers and workers: strike action. This is despite the fact work days lost to strikes are at an historic low - lower, in fact, than work days lost to accidents and injuries at work.
So, when Taylor tells us that workers need a stronger voice to prevent the exploitation rife in low-wage sectors of the economy - where insecure contracts abound and are easily filled by those forced to take “any” work or face punitive Tory benefit sanctions - let us remember who took that voice away.
The TUA contradicts so violently with the ostensible aims of the Taylor Review (to protect workers from exploitation) that it is difficult to see said inquiry as anything but an extension of May’s “party of workers” speech - a superficial rebranding exercise designed to shift the attention away from the fundamental undoing of workers’ protections by our own government.
In our Manifesto for Labour Law - 25 recommendations for reform, the principles of which have been adopted by the Labour Party - we call for the TUA to be repealed. Following this action, we argue for greater trade union rights to provide workers with a voice not just at work but across the economy.