What are the facts around Theresa May’s “new deal for workers”?

16 May 2017 In the run up to the Snap Election, each of the parties will be releasing a barrage of proposals that inevitably fall short on detail.

16 May 2017| News

16 May 2017

In the run up to the Snap Election, each of the parties will be releasing a barrage of proposals that inevitably fall short on detail.

Here at the Institute of Employment Rights we will be digging deeper to try and understand the details and facts behind the politics.

This week, Theresa May has promised a “new deal for workers” if the Conservative Party wins the election, but what might her proposals mean in practice?

1: Guaranteeing that workers will enjoy the same rights after Brexit as they do under the EU

Theresa May has promised this before, but her Party has since filibustered a Private Members’ Bill to put her words into action.

Melanie Onn, the Labour MP who brought the Bill in February this year, said: “My bill would go no further than what Theresa May and David Davis promised last year – to ensure that the rights currently afforded to British workers are maintained after Brexit … But when given the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are, they instead blocked the protection of those rights in UK law.”

What’s more, experts have spoken out with concern about the security of workers’ rights in the Great Repeal Bill.

The government has given itself sweeping powers (known as Henry VIII powers) to modify thousands of regulations through secondary legislation – which does not require parliamentary debate – when the UK leaves the EU.

Speaking to the RT, International Law Researcher at Queen Mary University Sam Fowles pointed out that there is nothing in the Great Repeal Bill to give parliament a say in which laws can be modified with impunity and which cannot.

“I’m talking about things like air quality measures, environmental measures, things like employment protections … are these going to make it into British law, or are they going to be dropped along the way with these Henry VIII powers?,” he said.

Both Liberal Democrat and Labour Brexit Secretaries – Nick Clegg and Keir Starmer – also pointed out that Working Time Directive and other rights derived from the EU were not secure in the Great Repeal Bill. Starmer warned that without safeguards written into the law, there was nothing in place to stop MPs who want to water down employment rights from doing so.

Elsewhere, experts have warned that unless employment protections are written into primary legislation, there is nothing to stop some rights won in EU courts from being overturned after Brexit. Research by the House of Commons Library last year showed that some rights could be weakened by UK courts if they are not enshrined in primary legislation. Following the publication of the Great Repeal Bill, the TUC warned that this loophole had not been closed and some aspects of employment law could be diluted after Brexit.

The Fawcett Society also pointed out that if workers’ rights are left up to negotiation, then they may be used as bargaining chips in the many international trade deals the UK will need to sign post-Brexit.

In order to protect the rights workers currently have during the Brexit process, they need to be enshrined in primary legislation – and the Conservative Party has so far backed away from committing to this.

2: Increasing the National Living Wage in line with earnings until the end of parliament

The National Living Wage is already calculated as a percentage of median earnings (currently 55% and set to reach 60% by 2020), so it seems Theresa May’s proposal is for there to be no change to the law.

What’s more, the National Living Wageis significantly lower than the Real Living Wage, which is calculated according to the actual cost of living and is not available to millions of workers under the age of 25.

The Tories’ National Living Wage is actually a rebranded National Minimum Wage.

3: Protections for “gig” economy workers, with a consultation on rights such as maternity leave

The Conservatives have been vague so far on what is meant by new protections for “gig” workers, but it is likely any proposals will be based on the Taylor Review – an inquiry May commissioned into the gig economy last year.

Due to be published in June, we know that Head of the review Matthew Taylor believes workers need democracy in the workplace – a role traditionally taken on by trade unions.

As the Tories passed the Trade Union Act 2016 to reduce trade union powers last year, and have introduced tribunal fees that make enforcing workers’ rights economically unviable for up to half of those with strong cases, it will be nigh impossible to provide workers with a stronger voice in the workplace and any extra protections they become entitled to will be extremely difficult to enforce, making them “rights” in name only.

Lastly, their suggestion that “gig” workers may receive rights such as maternity pay is subject to consultation, leaving the door open for significant dilution of the proposal.

4: Worker representation on company boards

This is not the first time we have heard this proposal. In fact, it was the jewel in the crown of the Conservative Party’s rebrand when May first took the reins last summer.

Since then, the Party has conducted a consultation into corporate governance that included several options on representing workers at executive levels but made it clear that the government had no intention of mandating that workers are appointed to boards.

Indeed, the Telegraph has reported that there has been no change in this policy line. The newspaper revealed that the new policy was aimed at listed companies and would give them the option to designate a non-executive director as an employee representative, as well as ensure the creation of “stakeholder advisory panels” on which executives might choose to engage with staff, but would not guarantee workers a seat on the board.

5: Giving workers the same right on information on their company’s future as shareholders

Again, the details are currently lacking on this proposal, but so far it is difficult to see how workers will use what information they have access to to protect their rights when their ability to organise in trade unions and thus collectively negotiate with their employers is being watered down by recent legislation, such as the Trade Union Act 2016.

6: Right to request leave for training

Experts including May’s job tsar Matthew Taylor have pointed to better training as an urgent need within the workforce, but the Conservatives have stepped back from encouraging employers to invest in upskilling their own staff and have instead offered the right to ask for leave in order to train.

It is not clear yet how new this proposal really is, as workers already have the right to request leave for training, but it is very easy for employers to turn these requests down and Conservative politicians have previously said they do not wish to see this right extended.

7: Right to unpaid leave to care for sick relatives

A Conservative Party spokesperson explained to the Telegraph that there will be a consultation into the nature and length of leave that can be taken, but it is guaranteed anyone taking off time to look after a sick relative will be provided with unpaid leave only, which limits the number of people who can afford to take advantage of this new ‘right’.

8: Extending the Equality Act 2010 to cover those with mental health conditions

There is currently no detail available on how these new rules will operate, but mental health conditions are already covered in part by the Equality Act 2010.

Regardless of how the new rules will be implemented, the Conservative Party has already ignored calls to repeal Employment Tribunal fees, which mean that people who are discriminated against at work must pay £1,200 to have their case heard in court, which renders these rights toothless for a substantial number of people who cannot afford to enforce the law.

9: Right to child bereavement leave

The only details we have on this proposal so far is that workers will be allowed to take two weeks of paid leave in the tragic circumstances that they lose a child. It seems that other forms of “time off for family and dependents” – which includes compassionate leave in the case of bereavements – will continue to be unpaid.

10: “Returnships” for mothers going back to work after maternity leave

This builds on a commitment in the 2017 Spring Budget that £5 million will be invested into “returnships”, although there is no detail yet on how this will be spent or how so-called “returnships” will be organised in law.

The way the term is currently used is by businesses that offer internship-style positions to women returning to work after having a baby.

Such deals offer women who previously held senior positions a short-term placement in which to retrain, upskill and “prove themselves”, but without the guarantee of permanent work.

This falls short of what many working mothers need in order to earn enough to feed their family and it remains to be seen whether this concept will be adjusted to provide for women who were not originally in senior positions. There is currently no detail on whether returnships would be paid, and the current definition of short-term employment may be open to exploitation in the same way internships have been used by some companies to take advantage of desperate graduates.