Last Friday, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) announced proposals to “streamline” employment law. In brief, the changes laid out mark the culmination of government plans to make it easier to sack employees and strip away workers’ legal defences.
The measures include a cap on the amount of compensation that can be paid out at employment tribunals and a fee from next year to pursue tribunals in the first place. The government also intends to make it easier for judges to throw out “weak” cases, and offer an loophole whereby employers can offer a “settlement” to get rid of someone and not have it considered unfair dismissal.
The detail of the BIS proposals can be read here.
In April this year, the qualify period for employees to have legal protection against unfair dismissal was raised from one to two years. This, along with the above proposals, forms part of a drive to make work far more casual and precarious.
The end result is workers having to move from job to job, knowing they can be released at a moment’s notice and unsure of how long each employment will last. The competition for jobs will tip the job market (further) in the employer’s favour, allowing them to drive down wages.
At the same time, it will make workers far less willing to organise, not wanting to risk rocking the boat when they need to make ends meet. This will accelerate the “race to the bottom,” whereby the government and employers can slash away at terms and conditions on the grounds that they aren’t offered by rival employers. Something PCS members in the civil service will already be familiar with through recent attacks on pensions.
There should be no doubt that this is the government’s aim – class warfare to shore up business and profits at the expense of workers’ living standards and industrial strength.
The proposed employment law changes will no doubt be challenged by various means, from petitions to legal challenges. However, it remains true that the worker’s best defence is our own collective strength.
It is already the case that workplaces with strong unions will have employment rights better than the legal minimum, whilst even the law affords little protection in unorganised workplaces. This disparity will only become starker as these attacks are pushed through. In which case the question asked must not be “how can they do this” but “how can we stop it”?
There are plenty of examples that we can look to in the present. Cleaners in London, organised through the Industrial Workers of the World, fought their way from poverty pay to the London Living Wage. Electrical and mechanical construction workers formed a militant direct action campaign to defeat the seven biggest construction employers, deskilling and 35% wage cuts. They are just two instances from many.
What they underline is the power workers hold when we organise. It is that power we must call upon if we want to defeat the government’s attacks.