20 October 2016
By Declan Owens, Socialist Lawyer
A Manifesto for Labour Law: towards a comprehensive revision of workers’ rights, published by the Institute of Employment Rights, 2016
Workers who read the Institute of Employment Rights’ Manifesto will recognise its diagnosis of the problem of labour law in the UK and it is likely that they will agree the recommended solution: a comprehensive revision of workers’ rights. Workers’ rights in the UK are already subject to a framework of law that is the most restrictive in the western world, a grim reality proudly endorsed by Tony Blair on the eve of his election in 1997 and not effectively addressed by any UK government since. Nevertheless, the Manifesto recognises that the world of work has changed and the law must follow.
The 25 principal recommendations, set out in the concluding chapter, are based on the need to ensure that workers’ voices are heard and respected through a ministry of labour, a national economic forum and sectoral employment commissions. These recommendations are supported by the ‘four pillars of collective bargaining’ with transformative implications across four spheres of social life: (i) workplace democracy (making workers stakeholders in their employer); (ii) social justice (the reader will be particularly alarmed by a stark graph outlining the correlation between the decline in UK union membership/collective bargaining and the rise in income inequality); (iii) economic policy (showing how collective bargaining can turn a vicious cycle of lower living standards into a virtuous cycle of growth and prosperity); and (iv) the rule of law (requiring the UK to comply with international labour standards). The dejuridification of the employment relationship achieved through the shift from legislation to collective bargaining as a regulatory mechanism is to be welcomed by those labour lawyers who care about the interests of workers because it would reduce expensive and lengthy litigation; in this respect, as in other practice areas, lawyers should be glad of less work.
The proposals also include the need to ensure that universal rights at work for all workers (not just employees), freedom of association, and the right to strike (without which collective bargaining ‘is little more than collective begging’), and a call to repeal the Trade Union Act 2016. In an era of blacklisting of trade unionists in the construction sector; zero hours and exploitative temporary agency work contracts across sectors in firms such as Sports Direct, Deliveroo and Uber Eats; exploitation and betrayal of migrant labour by firms such as Byron; and sharp practice by employers such as BHS in business restructuring, the manifesto is a further call to arms for the labour movement as they continue their fight back against injustice at the workplace, especially through rank and file mobilisation. The recommendation for the creation of a specialist labour court and an effectively resourced labour inspectorate would help to further address many of these injustices.
The recommendations are not even particularly radical: they reflect policies that have been in place in many countries within Europe for decades, or were seen as prerequisite thresholds for EU accession countries, and there is a limited focus on the need for radical reform of corporate governance. The Manifesto was written and published before the Brexit vote but its validity and the implications of a possible further lowering of standards in the aftermath of the referendum make the adoption of the recommendations even more necessary to safeguard the position of workers in the UK. This is particularly necessary as there is likely to an ideological pivot under the Tories to deregulate the labour market further and seek to make the UK a low tax and low regulation economy, notwithstanding that the UK is already in breach of international labour standards in a number of areas, especially the right to strike.
The manifesto was drafted by a dream team of 15 labour academic lawyers and labour specialists whose expertise cannot be doubted. The stated intention is that the manifesto should be offered to Labour’s Workplace 2020 Commission and, promisingly, John McDonnell MP confirmed at the Labour Party Conference in September 2016 that they will now look at ways to implement the recommendations of the manifesto. The question remains whether there will be the political will and capacity within the party to adopt the recommendations at a general election and legislate accordingly. Regardless of the internal policy debate within the Labour Party, it is clear that any party professing to represent the interests and preferences of labour now has the formula for winning the votes of 31 million workers throughout the UK and achieving social justice through the recommendations in this manifesto. The IER will be holding meetings and producing briefings and video clips to promote the manifesto in the autumn of 2016; the reader is advised to read the manifesto, attend the meetings and spread the word.
Originally published in the October 2016 edition of Socialist Lawyer