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Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Conference stands up for employment and trade union rights

#undc13 Pat McDonagh North West regional delegate moved the first motion of conference, composite G on employment and trade union rights. Pat outlined the Con Dem attack on workers’ rights including fees for employment tribunals and capping of compensation. Full speech below.

'Conference, the Coalition Government is attacking the historic achievements of the labour movement. Our public services, our welfare state, and our employment rights.

This third area of attack, on employment rights, is not so evident in the media and 90% of people don’t know it’s happening. But it is of course of crucial importance to our members because we need our jobs. Wages are our only source of income, which means our living standards are fragile. We need security in our employment.

Job insecurity is high and is growing.

It is in this context that the Coalition Government is introducing a raft of attacks on individual employment rights. In this area, as in so many others, the weakness of their democratic mandate does not hold them back from launching a wholesale attack on working people.

The Government has already extended the qualifying period before an employee can claim unfair dismissal from one year to two years.

This change means two years of precarious employment for any new starter. This is a free pass for every employer to dismiss new employees – and not very new employees - without any justification, reason or proper process. And it is women and young people who will be most affected by this.

So why do it? There is no evidence that the previous shortening of the qualification period from two years to one year in 1999 had a negative impact on job creation. 1.7million extra jobs were created with a one year qualifying period in place. Indeed, the economy is being held back by a lack of consumer confidence, firms are reluctant to invest in a climate with uncertain demand. This situation will hardly be helped by making people’s jobs – and incomes – more precarious.

Fees for the first time to access the tribunal.

Tory Government’s always extend the qualifying period to bring a tribunal claim, but this one has gone further than Thatcher did in denying people access to tribunals. Starting this month, for the very first time, those bringing a tribunal claim will have to pay fees.

These fees are at a substantial level – up to £1200 – and only those on very low incomes will not have to pay.

Where lodging an employment tribunal claim has previously been about a worker exerting a citizenship right to have an external opinion on an employer decision, the introduction of fees turns filling in an ET1 form into something closer to filling in a betting slip. It should not be necessary to speculate in order to accumulate when it comes to a matter of justice.

Cap on pay outs

A third highly significant change is that from this Summer, the cap on unfair dismissal compensation will be set at 12 months salary. Currently, the cap is just over £74,000. A relatively low paid employee’s rightful compensation can be boosted towards this figure by including their loss of pension entitlement.

It is outrageous that where a tribunal agrees that a worker has been wronged they can still end up out of pocket due to an arbitrary cap – especially as this change is designed to hit lower paid staff with relatively good pension entitlements – a close approximation to our members in the public sector. Employers who are found by a tribunal to have unfairly dismissed a worker can still anticipate coming out ahead.

And there are other reforms planned that each are objectionable to us – including no-fault dismissals, weaker protections for whistleblowers, protected conversations, the list goes on and on. 

From this Autumn, an employee can forfeit their right to unfair dismissal and redundancy pay in return for shares in the company.

This idea is unlikely to take off, but it again illustrates the Coalition’s feckless attitude to employment rights. Rather than being about giving employees a right to an independent hearing, the Coalition is turning the ability to access an employment tribunal into something to be bartered and exchanged.

Now, you’ve probably seen that the media have recently highlighted how some MPs have been willing to ask questions in Parliament for money.

The Coalition is rushing through legislation which includes a statutory register of lobbyists. So far so good perhaps. But they are also taking the opportunity to attack trade unions through ending self-certification of union membership and requiring costly annual audits of members. This is a complete diversion from the scandal that prompted the legislation. A media storm about big business influence over the political class is being used as cover to attack us.

This highlights Coalition Government’s opportunism, shamelessness and hatred of organised labour.    

Rochdale Dispute

The way that rules are devised and applied in way that deliberately disadvantages trade unions is perhaps most apparent in regard to industrial disputes. Unions face complex and arduous administrative hurdles before working people can legally and safely withdraw their labour. And employers have been able to exploit all manner of minor technical points to block lawful industrial action.

There is an on-going dispute with Future Directions in Rochdale, where 114 low paid members who support adults with disabilities, face a raid on their terms and conditions. These workers voted to take strike action but were blocked from doing so by the employer obtaining an injunction. I’m pleased to say that our members were not deterred by this, and did take action earlier this month and will be striking for a further 3 days from today. I want to salute the courage of this group of workers and I’m sure we’ll all want to show our support for their struggle at their rally on 29 June..

So Conference, we are seeing a deliberate worsening of individual employment rights. This is not based on any empirical evidence, rather it is based on the Beecroft Report. When his report was leaked it was widely ridiculed - not least by Vince Cable who described it a "bonkers" - but 80% of its recommendations are now being implemented by the Government.

The Government and its ideological backers – the Taxpayers Alliance, Policy Exchange, the Institute of Directors – don’t have a plan for economic growth between them. All they have is one idea – cuts. Cuts to public services, cuts to the welfare system and cuts to employment rights and regulations.

And we should be very nervous of David Cameron’s European renegotiation, as his expressed intent is to remove the UK from labour market rules and regulations.

What can we do in the face of this concerted attack?

We need of course to campaign against the attacks on employment rights and highlight what they mean to our members and the general public.

We will need to find a way of operating within a regime of tribunal fees, and ensure that our members are not prevented from bringing legitimate claims.

We need to make the case that regulation and employment rights are not costs to be minimised in the name of economic growth. Rather, greater security of employment and income is an essential feature of a vibrant economy. People in constant fear of losing their jobs will not spend money and will not be innovative and creative in the way they do their work. Spreading precarious employment is not a growth strategy.

We need to build support in the UK for labour market regulations such as TUPE and the Working Time Regulations. We need to win support for these such that they are things that British people want, whether or not they are a condition for membership of the European Union.

But more than this, we need to be confident that we are a big part of the solution in regulating employment. The motion refers to the inadequate recognition procedures in the UK and calls for them to be changed in line with international standards. We need a legal framework that allows us to play our proper role across more employers and workplaces.

Conference, we have perhaps as a movement relied too much on legal backing for individual employment rights. This Government is intent on destroying these rights, and we cannot confidently rely on European law to protect us.

We must fight the attacks on employment rights, but we should keep in mind that the best guarantee of employment conditions is not legal protections, but unionised workplaces.

Conference, we need to rely on our own strength – the strength of organised working people, to protect employment conditions. I move'