Teachers and headteachers consider ‘unprecedented’ joint strike over schools cuts

This week, three education unions will consult their members over taking industrial action in response to last week’s budget.

Commentary icon12 Nov 2018|Comment

Sarah Glenister

National Development Officer, Institute of Employment Rights

In that budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond allocated just £400m to the struggling sector for what he described as “little extras” – a comment widely criticised as offensive to schools that are desperate for investment after eight years of cuts.

The National Education Union (NEU), National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) will ballot their combined membership on how they should act to persuade the government that the funding crisis is putting children’s education at risk.

General Secretary of the ASCL, Geoff Barton, told the Independent that collaboration between unions that represent teachers and those that represent school employers was “unprecedented”. Certainly, it is damning proof that despite Theresa May’s promises, austerity is far from over.

One of the explanations the government gives for its continued lack of investment in public services is that the country just doesn’t have the money to spend on things like healthcare, railways or education.

Neither do we have the cash for the benefit claimants we’re told are a ‘drain’ on the public purse, justifying a witch-hunt for some of the country’s most vulnerable and a sanctions culture that is shocking in its brutality.

What they don’t like to shout about is that most benefit claimants are in work, and the reason millions have been left reliant on the welfare state is because employment law in this country frankly encourages employers to pay low wages.

The Living Wage Foundation, which calculates the income workers need to cover the basic costs of living, last week announced that the Real Living Wage had increased to £9 outside of London and £10.55 within the capital.

This means that people currently receiving the National Living Wage (which is just another minimum wage, rebranded) are falling short by £1.17 per hour and £2.72 per hour respectively. And people under 25, who are only eligible for the lower National Minimum Wage, lose out even more.

Some of the richest and most powerful employers in the country pay their staff the lowest legal rate, forcing workers to rely on benefits, and thus “scrounging” off the state to cover their payroll costs. Universal credit recipients are pressured into accepting low-quality work, taking precarious roles like zero-hours contracts to avoid ruthless sanctions.

While we do not pretend it solves all the problems of public sector funding, at think tank the Institute of Employment Rights we are keen to continue drawing attention to the hypocrisy at the heart of the government’s programme of austerity.

Workers are asked to make sacrifices; businesses are not; and, perversely, workers’ tax money is used to fund their own exploitation.

This applies not just to the normalisation of in-work benefits – a tacit acceptance that no one actually intends to “make work pay” – but also the awarding of enormous public contracts to care providers who give workers just £3 per hour for night shifts, and construction companies that admit to illegally blacklisting thousands from employment because of their trade union links.

So how could reforms to employment law turn this situation around? First, we could send a message that the UK expects employers to pay their workers enough to cover basic living costs.

The IER recommends that the minimum wage is replaced with the Real Living Wage, and this is built upon through the reinstatement of sectoral collective bargaining.

This process would see unions and employers’ associations negotiate pay and conditions that are implemented throughout entire industries, no matter whether you are hired directly, through an agency or on a zero-hours contract.

Under our proposals, if employers really want to offer their workers “flexibility”, they’d have to accept that it will go two ways, with workers no longer being asked to sacrifice their employment rights to access “flexible” jobs.

The current employment status of “worker” (which strips those on precarious contracts of all but a few of their employment rights) should be replaced by a universal status that provides all people in employment with the same rights from day one.

Lastly, we should stop throwing public money at companies that are known to disrespect the law. Those who breach their workers’ employment rights, create illegal blacklists, fail to recognise trade unions or to comply with collective agreements should be prevented from accessing public contracts.

With higher wages, the need to subsidise big business will dwindle and that money can be invested where it’s needed the most – in public services, properly run, by ethical organisations that do not exploit the very communities they are called upon to serve. Alone, it’s not enough to save the NHS, or our schools, but it’s a step in the right direction – towards a country that strives for equality and fair treatment for all.

Originally published by Left Foot Forward

Sarah Glenister

Sarah Glenister Sarah Glenister Sarah Glenister is the Institute of Employment Rights' IT Development and Communications Assistant.