Employment laws need to be ‘levelled up’ on the Government’s agenda

Following the Queen’s Speech delivered in the House of Commons yesterday (11 May), Green Peer Natalie Bennett highlights the lack of ‘fair, regulated, non-exploitative’ employment laws mentioned for the UK workers who need them most.

Hospitality staff
Natalie Bennett

There are so many horrors in the Government’s Queen’s Speech legislative shopping list, from the destructive plans for voter suppression taken straight from the US Republican playbook, to the Refugee Convention-defying immigration proposals, and the attempts to clip the wings of the rule of law through restricting judicial review, that what’s missing hasn’t got much of a look in.

What attention there’s been has – understandably – mostly been on the not-so-surprising non-appearance of a plan for social care, which seems to have been lost between the workbench and the oven. Maybe Dilyn ate the Government’s carefully prepared (promised in 2019) homework on the issue.

And there’s been some focus on the increasingly desperate victims of the building safety scandal – denied succour in the Building Safety Act despite the best efforts of the House of Lords – who have been rightly drawing attention to the failure, four years after the Grenfell Tragedy, to deal with their plight.

But there’s been little attention on Boris Johnson’s failure to deliver on another election offer, on an employment bill, the one already promised in the last Queen’s Speech. (Maybe, like the Environment Bill, it will be third time lucky and we’ll finally see it land and progress with the NEXT Queen’s Speech – if we get one before the next election.)

That made a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Future Generations soon after the Speech yesterday particularly relevant. The group heard from Nobel Economics Laureate Professor Angus Deaton, who showed how in the US having a four-year college degree was as protective from dying from Covid-19 as having been vaccinated against it. His focus was not on the impact of education itself, but on the nature of work for lower-qualified workers, both the pay and the degree of respect they are given.

And lack of respect – and pay and security – is just as typical of UK work as it is in the US. Recent research from the Living Wage Foundation demonstrated that almost 40 per cent of UK workers are given less than a week’s notice of their working times or shift patterns. Another study showed that 35 of 40 large UK employers that use zero-hours or short-hours contracts sometimes cancel shifts at short notice, and only four provide any sort of compensation.

When I put these figures out on social media, I got, as I often do at public meetings, several responses along the lines of “that can’t be right” or “I’ve never seen people employed like that”. This reflected, as it usually does, a generational divide and a social divide. It is younger workers who are worst-affected by such exploitative conditions, and workers from the BAME community and other disadvantaged backgrounds.

In 2019, the Government was consulting on plans to give workers a right to reasonable notice of their schedules, and compensation if shifts were cancelled without due notice. It also said that it would change the law to give workers a right to request a more stable contractual working pattern after 26 weeks of employment.

But of such action yesterday, we heard nothing. This, despite all the talk through the Covid pandemic – particularly during its early months – of the crucial importance of low-paid, insecurely employed staff. And despite the widespread anger about companies’ abusive use of the current conditions to try to rob staff of what should be their rights, including through the use of so-called ‘fire and rehire’ tactics.  

And despite the impact of low-wage, insecure employment not just on individuals, but on whole regions, such as South Yorkshire. What an obvious way to make progress on the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda – whatever you might think of its faults.

An employment bill was also expected to deal with the issue so powerfully highlighted by Pregnant Then Screwed: that pregnant workers are hugely disproportionately represented in redundancy, and the other needs of parents for neonatal leave and steps to improve the take-up of shared parental leave. Among those calling for action in this area has been Caroline Nokes, the Conservative Chair of the Commons women and equalities committee.

This is despite the fact that the US is showing real signs of progress in protecting workers’ rights through the kind of legislation – known as ‘fair workweek laws’ – that might have been in the Queen’s Speech. Once again, the Government might talk of being ‘world-leading’, but it is actually trailing at the back of the pack. And many of the people who voted for it are not getting the kind of protection the Government promised them.

This is a foundational issue for Green thinking, that the traditional approach to politics, not just from the Tories, is to regard the job of politics as being to feed, nurture, and grow the economy. As Greens, we look from the opposite perspective, regarding the economy as a servant of people and planet, needed to deliver secure, healthy lives and environments. One thing essential for that outcome is fair, regulated, non-exploitative employment laws, which we certainly don’t have now in the UK