Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, has given the party’s strongest indication yet as to the potential legislative landscape facing employers and unions if they get into power at the next general election.
In a speech at the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), she gave a 'cast iron guarantee' that a Labour government would introduce an Employment Rights Bill within the first 100 days of office.
With reference to her party’s green paper New Deal for Working People, Ms Rayner confirmed that Labour would build 'an economy that works for working people' with commitments such as a ban on zero-hours contracts and an end to 'blacklisting' of current and former trade union members, primarily by tightening up existing laws on the use of prohibited lists of trade union members. This would mean employers could not use third-party contractors to assemble lists, and the use of artificial intelligence or 'predictive technologies' to assemble these lists would be outlawed.
She also referred to promises in the green paper that statutory sick pay would be made available to all workers, and from day one of sickness, and indicated that pay for those working in adult social care would be increased, citing her own experience of working in the industry.
Mindful of her audience, the Labour deputy leader focused on the green paper’s commitments in relation to trade unions and industrial relations, including Labour’s promise that it would revoke the new law requiring a minimum level of service in some public services, introduced by the Conservative government in an attempt to minimise disruption caused by industrial action in the health sector, the fire service, teachers and transport workers. Also revoked would be the Trade Union Act 2016, which introduced a 50% turnout requirement for ballots and a 40% support requirement for ballots run in certain key public services.
On the back of recent industrial action at Amazon and an aborted bid by the GMB union for statutory recognition, Labour states that it will provide a regulated legal framework to govern the union’s role in the workplace. Ms Rayner said this would allow unions to meet, represent, recruit and organise members and simplify the statutory recognition process to allow unions to be formally recognised in the gig and remote worker economies. At Amazon’s Coventry warehouse, GMB had recently accused the multinational tech giant of deliberately frustrating its attempt for statutory recognition at the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) by bringing in 1,000 extra staff to reduce the percentage of union members within the workforce.
Ms Rayner also promised the introduction of electronic balloting, a boost to firm and sector collective bargaining powers, and a ban on 'fire and rehire' processes.
Although the target audience for the speech was trade unions, their members and perhaps disillusioned employees considering union membership, Ms Rayner’s speech also carried an assurance that all of these changes would work for employers too. Labour argues that higher pay would mean more spending on the UK’s high street and boost the economy; collective bargaining powers would help unions, employees and employers to adapt to technological and societal change; and clear legislation and regulation to underpin the new legal framework would be to the benefit of all. Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives responded that Ms Rayner had committed to giving 'Labour's union paymasters' more 'control over Britain's economy' and repeated their message that 'the Conservatives are delivering the protections we need to stop Labour-backed union leaders from trying to shut down the country'.
Other key commitments in the green paper include the creation of a single ‘worker’ status (save for the genuinely self-employed), enhanced family-friendly rights, the right to ‘switch off’ and not be contacted during non-working hours, the creation of a single enforcement body to protect workers’ rights, and a commitment to tackling inequality and diversity, workplace harassment and cutting gender, ethnicity and disability pay gaps. Perhaps the most significant of Labour’s proposals would be to scrap the two year qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims with a removal of the cap in compensation in respect of such claims, making the right not to be unfairly dismissed a ‘day one’ right.
The UK will have a general election by January 2025 at the latest which could, according to opinion polls, see an end to 13 years of Conservative government, the last of which has seen a marked increase in legislation and rhetoric that the unions claim is seeking to stifle their power and goodwill, especially in a year where almost four million working days have been lost to strikes, the most since the 1980s.
Will employers embrace and flourish in the certainty Labour are promising, or will an increase in union membership, involvement and power frustrate employers trying to do business? In two years’ time we may know the answer.