08 August 2016
Lydia Hayes, lecturer at Cardiff Law School, on the IER’s Manifesto for Labour Law
A TIMELY and compelling contribution to political debate that advocates real and lasting change in the British labour market and economy, this manifesto’s case for better wages, improved productivity, greater security and lesser inequality is underpinned by the promise of progressive legal change.
Its ideas will surely be shared, debated and promoted throughout the labour movement over the coming months.
The manifesto diagnoses a number of problems with the political consensus of past decades, in which individual labour rights are regarded as a panacea for labour market regulation. A radical change of tack would see law used instead as a tool with which to promote fair, secure, democratic, just and productive conditions of work to meet the needs of the 21st-century workforce in Britain.
This set of proposals is solidly evidenced, enabling Britain to meet existing obligations to international legal standards. It calls on the state to respond to the parlous reality of the British labour market and to take responsibility for the various opportunities and oppressions that workers face in their day-to-day experiences of work.
Without strong trade unions, individual employment rights are too difficult to enforce at a workplace level and with the advent of tribunal fees they are very expensive to enforce through formal legal routes.
But, perhaps most significantly, a strategy of labour market regulation based solely on the availability of individual rights is politically problematic. Too strong a focus on individual employment rights wrongly suggests that the only role of government is to set minimum standards, while other questions of terms and conditions are left to the vagaries of the market.
A better approach would ensure that the voice of Britain’s 31 million-strong workforce is heard and respected and the manifesto seeks to achieve just that by making practical recommendations for the voices of working people to be exercised at the levels of government, economy and in the workplace.
Consequently, this is a platform for radical labour law reform, grounded in evidence, to address the consequences of restrictive legal change since 1980 which has decimated collective bargaining.
The manifesto offers individual rights which are universally available from day one of employment, the establishment of a Ministry of Labour with a cabinet seat for the minister responsible, the introduction of sectoral employment commissions, a fair trade union recognition procedure, the realisation of freedom of association and a positive right to strike. One lesson we might learn from the high turnout and revival of political debate seen in the EU referendum is that people want their democratic voice and opinions to be heard. Nowhere in Britain is the erosion of democracy and silencing of people’s interests more evident than in their working lives.
Indeed, so many of the concerns which are labelled by the mainstream media as being about “immigration” are actually concerns about the weakness of workers’ rights, the silencing of workers’ voices and the consequent erosion of terms and conditions of employment.
Yet it is governments, not migrants, who are responsible for falling wages, inferior conditions and rising economic inequality.
As the manifesto makes clear, through collectively agreed terms and conditions set for an industry a fair wage for all can be established and the commercial advantage of employing migrants, or anyone else, on lower wages is removed.
Its proposal for Sectoral Employment Commissions across all industries and for every type of employment would enable such collective bargaining to become the main method for regulating wages by setting out minimum requirements, to be built upon with enterprise-based bargaining.
The Brexit vote brought to light that huge swathes of the public regard the advice of “experts” and scientific opinion with suspicion. Yet a poll by YouGov just before the referendum found that the expertise of academics was rated more highly than any other.
Whether people voted for or against Britain’s membership of the EU, the academic opinion was the one people were most likely to trust and this manifesto is written by 14 of the most authoritative voices in the field of labour law.
In the hurly-burly of post-referendum politics, at a time when we know workers’ rights will be put up for grabs, fresh ideas for legal reform are essential.
Outcome driven, this manifesto is a well-evidenced route map which has the potential to inspire a new political project to set the labour market on a stronger footing.
It demonstrates that labour rights should be universal, labour law must be effective, trade unions must be strengthened and governments must ensure a voice for all at work.
Originally published in the Morning Star