Tuesday, 1 February 2011

What today's charter of workers' rights looks like

Vince Cable should be ashamed of his 'employer's charter', which incites bosses to take advantage of workers' vulnerability, says Keith Ewing in the Guardian

Last week Vince Cable, the secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, produced a disgraceful document entitled "The employer's charter", proudly published on his departmental website.

In the same week that the governor of the Bank of England told us inflation-adjusted wages were falling in a manner unseen since the 1920s, Vince Cable is inciting bosses to take advantage of workers' vulnerability, by telling them in his charter that they have the right to ask their workers to take a pay cut, and to contact women on maternity leave about when they are planning to return.

Apart from the unnecessary nastiness of this initiative, it does provoke thought about what a corresponding workers' charter would look like, in a country where employers are constantly moaning about the great regulatory burden they face. Behind the government's nastiness and hyperbole, the stark reality is that a charter of workers' rights would currently look something like this:

The Workers' Charter
• You have the right to a minimum wage, but not necessarily a living or a decent wage

• You have the right to "agree" to work more than 48 hours a week, but not to be paid an overtime rate if you do so

• Women have the right to equal pay to men, but typically to be paid less than a man

• You have the right not to be unfairly dismissed, but not to get your job back if your complaint succeeds

• You have a right to a redundancy payment if made redundant, but only if you have been with your employer for at least two years

• You have a right to have your trade union recognised by your employer, but only if at least 40% of your colleagues agree

• You have a right to strike, but only if your employer does not apply for an injunction on some spurious procedural technicality

• You have a right to use an employment tribunal to enforce your rights, but not to receive legal aid or legal representation

• You have the right to seek employment as an agency worker, but to be denied all meaningful forms of legal protection if you do so

• You have the right to agree to a "master and servant" contract, thereby allowing your employer to change the terms at will

• If you do bring legal proceedings against your employer, not only will you not receive legal aid, but you will be required to subsidise the employer's legal costs through the tax system. One reason why there is such a huge "inequality of arms" in employment disputes is that employers can write off their legal costs (and any compensation awarded against the business) against tax, leaving the rest of us to pick up the bill. Claimants gets no tax relief, and no legal aid.

Think this is an exaggeration? Cue the conclusions of the Council of Europe Social Rights Committee, which reported on 16 December 2010. This is a committee responsible for monitoring our compliance with the European Social Charter of 1961, an international treaty designed to provide minimum protection for workers, ratified (by a Tory government) in 1962.

The December report was based on an examination of 16 obligations relating to the right to just conditions of work, the right to safe and healthy working conditions, the right to a decent wage, the right to freedom of association, and the right to bargain collectively. In a sobering report, the committee found the UK to be in breach of not one, but 13 of the 16 different obligations specifically accepted by this country. We comply with just three.

Cable should be ashamed of himself: ashamed of his failure to use his office to address the government's serious and serial breach of international treaty obligations; ashamed to be issuing a licence to abuse the vulnerable and the unprotected; but above all ashamed to be George Osborne's poodle. Where was any of this in the Lib Dem manifesto? Are we to put up with this as simply another price of coalition politics? Is it something else for workers and trade unions to think about when voting in the AV referendum?

Keith Ewing is professor of Public Law at King's College London and the author of The Bonfire of the Liberties