Dog whistle politics, Vince Cable and employment rights

With his Employer's Charter, Vince Cable is practically inviting employers to prey on the vulnerable and unprotected. In response, Keith Ewing has written a Charter of Workers' Rights, revealing the stark reality behind a Britain 'open for business'
Stuart Weir
26 May 2011

Vince Cable's fall from grace would be pretty spectacular if he wasn't so thoroughly eclipsed by Nick Clegg, David Law and Chris Huhne. The Lib Dems' once assured and savvy economics spokesperson has proved in action to be a man of bombast rather than substance. His Tory partners in government now pursue policies that he would once have savaged, a predicament made crueller by the fact that his vanity prompted him to fall on his own sword over Murdoch's bid for BSkyB.

But is he more of a piece with them than you may have imagined?  One of the good features of the previous Labour government was its (admittedly cautious and slow) progress towards giving both women and men more 'family-friendly' working conditions, especially on maternity and paternity leave and more flexible working hours. Important as Labour's changes were, they do not necessarily work that well in practice as employers can fairly readily nullify them if they so wish - as Rebecca Asher's new book, Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality vividly illustrates.

The Labour government’s weakness in the face of corporate and business power was another matter, of course, with a commitment to a ‘flexible labour market’ that pandered to market funsdamentalism, privileged employers and downgraded workers’ and trade union rights.  The Conservative-led coalition government is rather more gung-ho than Labour was, with Osborne’s boast that Britain is now ‘open for business’ (read as, ‘open to business’).

And Cable has produced a remarkable dog-whistle document, The Employer’s Charter, that will undoubtedly encourage employers to circumvent Labour's changes and take advantage of weaknesses of employees' rights at work.  Of course, there are phrases, enjoining employers to act 'fairly and responsibly', but the overall intent seems very clear to me.

What do you think?  Here is the Charter in its entirety:

The Employer’s Charter

The Employer's Charter aims to dismiss some of the myths about what employers can and can't do in managing their workforce. It tells you what you are reasonably entitled to ask and know about your employees, and what action you can take if there are problems.

As an employer - as long as you act fairly and reasonably - you are entitled to:
  • ask an employee to take their annual leave at a time that suits your business
  • contact a woman on maternity leave and ask when she plans to return
  • make an employee redundant if your business takes a downward turn
  • ask an employee to take a pay cut
  • withhold pay from an employee when they are on strike
  • ask an employee whether they would be willing to opt-out from the 48 hour limit in the Working Time Regulations
  • reject an employee’s request to work flexibly if you have a legitimate business reason
  • talk to your employees about their performance and how they can improve
  • dismiss an employee for poor performance
  • stop providing work to an agency worker (as long as they are not employed by you)
  • ask an employee about their future career plans, including retirement

This is intended to help employers understand what they can do in general. Of course, individual circumstances may vary and employers should act in accordance with their legal obligations.

In response to this license to abuse the vulnerable and unprotected, Keith Ewing has written a Charter of Workers’ Rights that reveals the stark reality behind these ‘freedoms’ for the employer:

The Workers’ Charter
  • You have the right to a minimum wage, but not 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;
  • You have the right as a woman to equal pay with 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 per cent 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.

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