Workplace issues: taking up the issues with the new government

Submitted by carolyn on Thu, 11/06/2015 - 14:06

10 June 2015

By Roger Jeary

In its first event since the general election, the Institute examined the consequences for trade unionists and workers’ rights of the election of a conservative government, albeit with a small majority. The conference brought together experts in the field of employment rights, health and safety and whistleblowing as well as psychologists looking at the psychological impact of austerity.

Carolyn Jones, the Institute’s Director, opened the Conference by reminding delegates of pre-election legislation awaiting commencement and threats of more to come in the future. She referred to the swingeing stick of anti-trade union legislation, including more hurdles for ballots, restricting facility time in local government, removing the law preventing agency workers being used in strikes and the proposed criminalisation of picketing workers. She noted that the purpose of the proposals was the government’s desire to undermine the work of trade unions in the workplace. She then introduced the first speaker, Susan Murray from Unite.

Susan Murray, Unite’s National Health and Safety Advisor, began by saying it was business as usual for health and safety. She referred to a new campaign from Unite, “Looking for Trouble”, a more proactive approach in the workplace for safety representatives. She told delegates that if we don’t look for trouble, trouble will come looking for us. She went on to explain that the campaign was about justice and equality and being able to have confidence in raising issues in the workplace. Susan also reminded conference that good workplace Health & Safety was only possible through union appointed safety reps and a strong union organisation along with good training.

Comparing employers’ duties with safety reps rights, Susan focussed on the need for safety reps to consult with workers and make representations to employers. She also made the point that in respect of facility time when carrying out health and safety duties it is “time on” not time off.

In winding up Susan mentioned that there is an underestimation of risks, particularly for women in the workplace. To tackle this there is a need to continue to campaign for statutory recognition for equality reps who can work with H&S reps. The “Looking for Trouble” campaign is about working together to improve workers morale and she reminded the conference that union organised workplaces are safer than non-organised workplaces.

Catherine Hobby, Senior Lecturer at UEL and co-founder of the Public Concern at Work Charity, was the next speaker, highlighting the problems faced by workers who raise issues in the workplace. She told Conference that whistleblowing continues to hit the headlines referring to the serviceman who recently spoke out about the Trident nuclear base and the problems that people face when they do speak out. The reality is that workers who do speak out are often victimised and sacked. She dismissed the government claim that the whistle blowing legislation was working well. Referring to the Francis report into NHS and a report for Kate Lampard into the Jimmy Saville crimes she said that the positive experience of whistleblowing were a small minority. The Francis report included 20 principles on the freedom to speak out and Catherine referred to four, in particular highlighting the need for a culture of raising concerns, of valuing staff, training and support for whistleblowers. She emphasised that legal protection needs to be enhanced as recommended by the Francis Review.

Reform of the Public Interest Disclosure Act, she said, was essential to offer more than a legal remedy of protection after victimisation rather than protecting individuals from the start. The current act was overly complex and needed to extend those workers covered. Government has only implemented one of the recommendations arising after extensive consultation which places a duty on regulators to publish information about whistleblowing concerns. She illustrated the complexity of the PIDA by reference to Public Interest Section 4(B) of the Act and the requirements that a whistleblower has to meet to make a “protected disclosure”.

Catherine was concerned about mandatory reporting as advocated by Yvette Cooper MP, given the inadequacy of protection for volunteers who speak up How would mandatory reporting encourage people to raise issues if protection from victimisation was not there? She also referred to the impact of tribunal fees and the number of whistleblowing protection cases of declining. The absence of access to legal aid for such claims was another factor she claimed.

Finally, Catherine spoke about the repeal of Human Rights Act. She pointed to the fallacy of the government rationale for the abolition that this would make the Supreme Court “ supreme again. The reality was that the Supreme Court is already the final stage of UK justice and there is no appeal to the Human Rights Court. Catherine told Conference that she hoped that the government would review the rights of whistleblowers as promised.

Next Ian Draper of the National Stress Network, stepped into a speaker gap and told delegates about the Stress Network. It was established in the 1990’s and provides material free to download (www.workstress.net). The Network links to the Hazards Campaign and Hazards Magazine and is supported by a number of trade unions, providing information about the causes and effects of stress in the workplace. He spoke of the effects, both physical and mental, from stress caused at work. The annual cost of people going to work when they shouldn’t has been estimated to be £15bn as increasingly workers feel under pressure not to take time off.

Yet legal claims for stress related illness were notoriously difficult to pursue successfully as the employee has to demonstrate foreseeability, that is the employer could have been reasonably expected to foresee the impact of work upon the worker.

Next Neil Duncan-Jordan from the National Pensioners Convention addressed delegates on the subject of the state pension and their new publication, “For what it’s worth” (copies of which are available from the IER for £1.00). He explained that three major changes are taking place: the auto enrolment pension scheme, the new pension freedoms and the new State Pension System.

Neil focussed on the new state pension and its implications for today’s and tomorrow’s retirees. He reminded us that the state pension has declined over the last 30 years; means testing, abolition of SERPS and changes in the pension age are some of the changes which have adversely affected pensioners. He challenged the idea that the new scheme was simple and universal as claimed by Ministers. It’s not single tier, it’s not universal and it’s certainly not simple. Neil asserted that pensioners will pay more, work longer and receive less. No new money is going in, it is a combination of current basic and second state pension into a single figure.

He also told delegates that those who had contracted out would have years deducted from their pension entitlement but this also was a complicated calculation and not straightforward. Earnings inflation or 2.5% would be applied each year to the value of your basic pension but this excludes any additional contributions which will only increase by CPI. As employees and employers will no longer be able to contract out of paying full NI contributions, it is likely that employers will look for ways of compensating for this extra cost from their workers.

In order to qualify for the new full state pension workers will now require 35 years contributions and of course the state pension age is rising, eventually to 67 by 2028 and subsequently, if the government determines, still further. Neil pointed out that people age differently and this increase in pension age will adversely affect many working people, eroding the right that people have to a decent period of retirement. In truth Neil argued that the real purpose of the new scheme is to cut back on cost of providing the state pension.

Finally, Neil pointed out that the existing state pension in the UK is not good. He told delegates that there was 20% poverty amongst older people, the same as that for young people. Going forward, Neil argued that trade unions should focus more on state pensions as workplace pensions decrease in value.

Following lunch David Sorensen, Morrish Solicitors, spoke about victimisation in the workplace. David focussed on the protections offered under the Equality Act 2010 and TULRA 1992. He told Conference that the Equality Act offers protection against discrimination and unequal pay. Victimisation protection is for those who suffer discrimination and is a key protection against retaliation by an employer. An employee who does a protected act is covered by this protection. It does not have to be the victim but can be someone who raises an issue on behalf of others or gives evidence to support a complaint.

The protection covers job applicants, employees, including apprentices, and ex-employees. David went on to explain, through legal cases, that protection in law was tricky to navigate through to success but highlighted how negative judicial decisions had been countered in a case of Woodhouse v West North West Home Leeds (EAT and Court of Appeal). He outlined problems created by a process known as ‘judicial proceedings immunity’ whereby behaviour of an employer towards an employee during legal proceedings could be ignored but noted that where the behaviour goes beyond anything considered honest and reasonable then it can amount to victimisation.

Turning to TULRA David highlighted the protection afforded trade union members, activists and reps against detrimental treatment and unfair dismissal. This included refusal of employment to a job applicant on grounds related to trade union membership and the banning of blacklists and refusal of employment related to a blacklist. There is also important protection against detriment for a reason relating to trade union membership, failure to accept unlawful inducements, or relating to a prohibited list.

Finally, David referred to interim relief. This remedy is open only to whistleblowers and trade union related detriment whereby immediate reinstatement is available.

The next two speakers introduced a new dimension to the Institute’s programme. Vanessa Griffin and Laura McGrath represent Psychologists Against Austerity, and addressed delegates on the psychological impact of austerity at work. Laura started by explaining the background to Psychologists Against Austerity which came out of the London Community Psychology Network and includes practitioners, academics and users of psychology. It seeks to provide collective empowerment of communities.

She told delegates that there was a clear relationship between austerity and a decline in mental health, including a rise in suicides in those countries which have implemented austerity programmes. A further link demonstrated that more unequal societies are less healthy and have poorer mental health and that the UK figures high in this area.

Laura went onto describe 5 austerity ailments – humiliation and shame; fear and distrust; instability and insecurity; isolation and loneliness; being trapped. She then identified 5 indicators of a healthy society – agency; security; connection; meaning; trust. Vanessa then spoke about how the group had developed its ideas. This included a launch in the House of Lords and distribution to key organisations.

She went on to identify austerity ailments in the workplace which included job insecurity which is as detrimental to mental health as unemployment. Lack of personal control over working time has added to insecurity so zero hours contracts and agency or self employed contracts add to the increase in workplace mental health detriment. Vanessa suggested that trade unions can be empowering by providing a sense of “agency” and greater control and improved security.
www.psychagainstausterity.wordpress.com

Roger McKenzie, Assistant General Secretary Unison, then spoke to delegates about the role of trade unions in the workplace and government attempts to undermine learning in the workplace. He referred to cuts in trade union further education funding which puts unions under pressure and seeks to undermine the effectiveness of trade unions in the workplace. Speaking of his experience within Unison, Roger told delegates that removal of check off would impact on the income of the union and the difficulty of accessing facility time all add to the pressures. Overall trade unions face a government that has a strategy of attacking trade union organisation. He highlighted the likely removal of funding from Union Learn as a key issue, a programme that had changed the face of trade union organisation in the UK, particularly for women in trade unions. Roger suggested that trade unions may have to change their approach to education to take account of change in work groups and facilities and the needs of workers.

In conclusion he said that this was a real challenge for trade unions and that if we are to be successful in giving power to workers then we have to find a way of delivering training to workers.

The Conference concluded with thanks to all the speakers from the Chair.

Roger Jeary

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