Prime minister Theresa May this week announced an 11-point plan that she describes in the Financial Times as the “greatest extension of rights and protections for employees by a Conservative government in history”. It includes – among other things – a promise to keep all workers’ rights currently guaranteed by European Union law, to grant staff the statutory right to time off for training and bereavement, and to ensure their jobs are kept open if they need to take time off to care for a relative.
“No one can accuse May of lacking political ambition,” says The Times. This is a “bold pitch” for Labour votes in the party’s heartlands. Nor can one accuse her of inconsistency. Last year she promised to “govern in the interests of the whole country, not the privileged few”. However, by adding to the regulatory burden for employers she takes the votes of millions of small business owners for granted, many of whom couldn’t afford to keep jobs open for absent employees even if they wanted to. “More particularly, she is laying herself open to the charge of putting party politics before what is right for the economy at a time when Brexit threatens economic growth.”
But the promised rights aren’t worth much anyway, says David Allen Green in the FT. In 2013, the coalition government imposed fees for the once-free employment tribunals where workers can enforce their rights. Would-be claimants now face fees of up to £1,200. Since few claimants can afford the fees, “or the risk of losing”, the number of claims has fallen by around 80%. “There is no point in providing workers with rights when they are not enforceable.” If they really care about workers, they would reduce those fees.
If you look at May’s record, it’s hard to see her as a defender of the workers in any case, says Julia Rampen in The New Statesman. She voted to hike tribunal fees, backed measures to weaken trade unions and voted against the introduction of the workplace pension scheme. She appointed Liam Fox as her international trade secretary – a man who once wrote that it was “intellectually unsustainable to believe that workplace rights should remain untouchable while output and employment are clearly cyclical”.
And the EU rights she plans to keep are “enshrined in the Great Repeal Bill”. This includes “‘Henry VIII’ clauses” that allow the government to change legislation without “the scrutiny of pesky parliamentarians”. So May could change her mind on workers’ rights, and “there’s not much anyone can do to stop her”.