UKIP in the workplace
29 May 2013
By Narmada Thiranagama
Until their performance in the May 2013 local elections, UKIP’s policies on matters outside immigration and Europe had largely escaped scrutiny. It is time this changed.
This lack of scrutiny clearly shows in their published policies: their most detailed statement of policy for the 2010 General Election comes branded with a prominent health warning that it ‘should not be considered current policy’. Their briefer and more recent statements of their policy priorities consist of the magic bullet of withdrawal from the EU, which would allow the imposition of strict controls on all kinds of immigration, padded out with a mixture of other populist ideas and glued together with frequent invocations of ‘common sense’.
Should we take UKIP’s policies for the economy and the workplace seriously, given that they do not seem, yet, to be preparing themselves for a serious entry into Parliamentary politics? For UNISON’s members and the communities they serve, the prospect of UKIP Councillors having a voice in local decision-making means that it is important that we know what their political instincts are. Even more than the devastating impact that their immigration policies would have on our migrant worker members and the vital role they play in public services their policies for everyone else appear to be just as dramatic. Many voters who chose UKIP as a vote against the ‘political class’ might be surprised at what they have planned for the working classes.
UKIP and the economy
UKIP have very little to say about the current economic crisis facing the UK. On a page titled 'What we stand for’ a reference is made only to ‘anxious and troubled times’. Revealingly, it goes on to say, “Violent crime erupts in our cities. Jobs are lost and services failing under a tide of immigration, pensions have been crippled and cash savings yield almost nothing” underlining the fact that immigration as a public ill has considerable explanatory power for UKIP. Recent comments by Godfrey Bloom make clear that UKIP also expect mass redundancies in the public sector to revitalise the economy: “They are public sector jobs, so they are taking money out of the economy and wealth creation. I hope hundreds, thousands of jobs will be lost…you will never understand UKIP until you understand this point. Public spending takes money out of the economy, it doesn’t put it in.”
The page aimed at small businesses provides a more detailed commentary on UKIP’s view of the workplace. The casual reader will not be able to navigate to this page easily from any menu, however, unlike other UKIP policy statements they have not taken it down or qualified its status as current UKIP philosophy.
A bonfire of employment rights
Unsurprisingly, UKIP focus their policy for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) on leaving behind the regulatory burdens of Europe. They envision a radical transformation of the relationship between the employer and employee, virtually unregulated and free to respond to market forces. “UKIP would put an end to most legislation regarding matters such as weekly working hours, holidays … overtime, redundancy or sick pay etc. and provide a statutory, standard, very short employment contract template … those employers who offer relatively generous terms would be able to use this in their advertising and might be able to attract better candidates or pay slightly lower salaries, and the reverse would apply to employers who demand longer working hours, or offer fewer holidays or fewer days’ sick pay etc.”
The implications of these policies are not only harmful for employees, they might also play less well with the majority of small business owners if there was any serious threat that they might become reality. The annual survey of SMEs by BIS regularly finds that regulation comes very low on the list of obstacles to growth. In 2012, the SME Barometer found that SMEs thought that the biggest obstacle to growth was the economy. Of the 667 directors and owners they interviewed, 32% believed that the economy was the biggest obstacle, followed by 13% who blamed taxation. ‘Regulations’ languishes at the bottom of the table along with ‘competition’ at 7%.
When concerns about the ‘economy’ were broken down, these employers said that uncertainty about the future, lack of demand from customers and increased running costs were their main worries. So not only does UKIP not have anything to say about the main concerns of one of their core constituencies, their employment rights policies would actually make their current worries far worse. Their proposals to strip away workers’ rights and rely on ‘reputation’ and market forces to govern the conditions of service of employees would plunge employers into a legal minefield and worsen the economic climate.
UKIP do not seem to value the role that consistent, transparent and well-understood employment regulations have in supporting the economic activities of companies – big or small. Clear and effective procedures actually help employers understand their duties and gives security to their employees. The removal of this framework could easily lead to an increased need for SMEs to consult legal opinion more extensively than before.
UKIP also plan to reduce job security for employees. “UKIP would legislate to ensure the scope of claims which can be heard by tribunals will be greatly reduced. In particular, limits on unfair dismissal and discrimination claims will be re-instated and no unfair dismissals or discrimination claims would be admitted by the Tribunals in respect of employees with less than two years continuous employment.” These proposals would massively increase job insecurity for UK workers, encourage bad practices by line managers and damage workforce morale. This would in turn lead to a negative effect for the economy as a whole, as increasing numbers of workers experience insecure employment and low pay. Once consigned to this shadowy economy, they’d find themselves without many safety nets, as UKIP plans to simplify the welfare state by getting rid of all benefits and replacing it with a ‘Basic Cash Benefit’ of around £64 per week for parents aged 25 and above. Given Bloom’s view that massive redundancies in the public sector would not affect the economy, it is clear that a UKIP economy is comfortable with high levels of unemployment.
An unequal playing field
UKIP informs us that ‘many SMEs are understandably nervous about employing young women, or try not to promote them to key positions’. Rather than rely on anti-discrimination legislation (which they would repeal), UKIP would leave it to employers to decide what to offer parents or potential parents. “An SME which refuses to offer parental leave will either have to offer young women higher salaries than other businesses which offer a long leave period or they will simply have to recruit from a smaller pool of potential employees.”
Women who feel that employers can now discriminate against them with impunity might not have much recourse to the law for redress, since “UKIP would additionally scrap most ‘equality and discrimination’ legislation, cap all compensation payments and allow commonsense to prevail.” While they do not get into any detail as to which parts of equality law they would repeal, they do name the provisions around Race, Sexual Orientation and Religion or Belief as being particularly undesirable and would free private companies providing public services from having to follow equality legislation. In short, "UKIP will oppose measures in the ‘Equality’ Bill to force employers in the public sector to discriminate against the indigenous male population". Together with their wish to get rid of statutory maternity, paternity, adoption pay and sick pay these proposals amount to a radical intervention by a UKIP state to roll back decades of social change.
UKIP’s instincts for decentralisation applies to Employment Tribunals as well:
“It is far better to allow localised tribunals to build up a body of practical case law and real life examples on what is, and what is not, acceptable, and to occasionally embody these into consolidating statutes, than it is for the government, largely in the name of some ‘equality and discrimination’ agenda to constantly impose more and more rules on employers who then find it almost impossible to work out which particular rights given to one perceived victim group trump those of another group.”
By implication, case law could differ from one part of the country to another, increasing uncertainty for employers. With the planned repeal of so much employment rights legislation, UKIP’s plans for employment tribunals could actually produce an outcome contrary to the their stated aim: to make employers’ legal obligations to their employees clearer.
In conclusion, one thing is clear. UKIP are not a friend of workers or trade unions. Nor is there an evidence base for their economic and employment policies, which would remove virtually all regulation particularly for small companies. They sincerely believe that this would have no negative impact on living standards or economic confidence. It is time the media started asking them some tough questions on jobs and work.