23 May 2017
Miguel Martinez Lucio, Professor of International HRM & Comparative Industrial Relations, University of Manchester
The engagement of the current government with workers’ rights has drawn the attention of the media. Much has been said about how the Conservatives are attempting to encroach on the heartlands of the Labour Party and this current push on workers’ rights is seen as an important part of this strategy. Some are even saying the current Conservative Government is taking a post-Thatcherist direction – leaving behind the neoliberal and market-venerating approaches of the 1980s and 1990s Conservative governments – but beyond spin, there is scant evidence for any serious attempt to rebalance the power between employers and the workforce.
For instance, the list of initiatives that comprised Theresa May’s “new deal for workers” appears impressive, yet one is left with a sense that these are an assortment of minor modifications on existing rights: either extending them to certain groups, or simply allowing workers to have access to forms of leave which are in the main unpaid or poorly paid. They appear to be almost arbitrary in their nature and represent no significant benefit to the average worker.
The main problem is that these rights amount to tokenistic gifts or favours (and cheap ones at that): specific modifications which do not actually address the underlying problems and gaps in the rights of workers, and which thus have little hope of improving the overall quality of their working lives. These are not rights that can be clearly executed by the workforce themselves, and their design, nature and implementation has not emerged from any ongoing discussion with the workforce or their representatives. They do not respond to any of the real concerns being voiced by workers or trade unions – such as the barriers to access to justice, or increasing wage inequality – and the labour movement has not been invited to have any real influence in the development and design of these ‘rights’.
Their implementation, if it is to be meaningful, will depend on how local and national trade union representatives are able to make them effective – yet it is not the intentions of the government to involve the labour movement. This represents the fundamental problem with what boils down to a minimalistic ‘pick and mix’ approach to workers’ rights.
The absence of any investment and policy on enhancing collective rights means that we now exist in an arbitrary and populist system of weak individualistic workers’ rights, as my colleague Professor Mark Stuart from CERIC (Leeds University Business School) and I have argued on various occasions in the past. By not investing in and building the right to be represented – and to have effective independent representation – these government proposals are likely to be undermined. Without the support of a trade union, workers are likely to feel uncertain or unclear about what rights are available to them, cannot access independent advice about their rights, and cannot use their rights to enrich democracy in the workplace. The failure to provide any real support to the trade union movement and systems of worker representation means that we are in fact left with a further fragmentation and piecemeal approach to workers’ rights, which for most workers will be worth no more than the paper they are written on.