Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Labour for labour?

Andrew Fisher assesses Labour's Work Manifesto, 'A Better Plan for Britain's Workplaces'

The Labour Party's 'work manifesto' sets out to create "a higher skill, higher wage economy" to provide "a bedrock of security for working families" - as Ed Miliband, Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna put it in their joint foreword.

Much of the focus is on zero hours contracts (ZHCs) - which provides a clear dividing line with their Conservative opponents. Cameron confessed he couldn't live on one, Miliband promised to do something about it.

Before getting lost in the not-entirely-clear detail of Labour's policy on ZHCs, it's first worth flagging up some of the other notable policies that are clear - most of which have been heavily trailed in the long campaign:

  • 25 hours (up from 15) free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds
  • 4 weeks paternity leave (up from 2) for fathers and doubling the rate of paternity pay
  • ensuring all primary schools offer access to wraparound childcare from 8am to 6pm
  • abolishing the coaltion government's £1,200 employment tribunal fees; and
  • scrapping the 'shares-for-rights' schemes
  • banning employment agencies from exclusively recruiting from abroad
  • make it illegal to use agency workers to undercut permanent employees
  • require companies to publish the salaries of their ten highest paid non-board member employees; and
  • require companies to publish pay ratio between their top earner and their average worker
  • the offer of a high quality apprenticeship for all 18 year olds with qualifying grades

In a change of style over substance, the phrase 'compulsory jobs guarantee' has been binned in favour of the more prosaic "Labour will guarantee a job for all young people who have been out of work for a year", adding separately "it will be a job they will have to take or lose benefits". Whether this will be a job or a choice of jobs is not known. It's a move away from workfare (the jobs are paid), and should see the abolition of the discredited Work Programme, but we are left hoping that the softened phraseology is reflective of more.

There were also some notable wins for some labour movement campaigns that have picked up substantial support and have been recognised by the Labour leadership:

  • "we will release all papers concerning the 'Shrewsbury 24' trials"; and
  • "we will set up a full inquiry that is transparent and public to examine the issue of blacklisting"; and a little less concretely 
  • "reviewing specific issues such as excessive workplace temperatures"

Many thousands of trade union activists and Labour MPs (not least LEAP's own John McDonnell) have carried these campaigns - in some cases for decades - and can at last see some light at the end of the tunnel. A Labour government promises to make the difference.

Zero hours contracts

Labour's policy on ZHCs  raises as many questions as it answers. The manifesto states:
"If you work regular hours, you will get the right to a regular contract. This will be measured over the first 12 weeks of employment"
So only if your hours are regular in the first 12 weeks? If they're irregular in the first 12 weeks but regular in the next 12 then no right is applicable? And how do we define regular? Is it the same number of hours, the same specific shift patterns?

This language will need to be tightened significantly to make meaningful legislation or Labour will simply create a giant loophole presented as a bow.

Perhaps more clearly, Labour also pledges to ban contracts that enforce "hours of availability" with no guarantee of work and ensure compensation for ZHC workers whose shifts are cancelled at short notice (though again no detail of what constitutes 'short notice').

Good, but we need detail

It is not only on ZHCs where Labour seems to be heading in the right direction but failing to provide sufficient detail. It's pledge to put "employee representatives on remuneration committees" is welcome but in what proportion. Will they be a majority?

More surprisingly, Labour says it "will ensure UK compliance with international obligations on labour standards". Does this mean that Labour will sign up to ILO conventions that the UK has to date refused to sign, including significantly 94, 95, 118, 143, 156, 158 and others? (see TUC for full briefing).

There is also the promise to look at extending the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (the TUC has called for construction, hospitality and social care sectors to be included) so we await the consultations and reviews.

The '£8 minimum wage by 2020' pledge announced at Labour Party conference 2014 (see analysis here) is extended somewhat by saying "more than £8 before 2020" and that it will be "closer to average earnings" - with the Low Pay Commission given a new remit to make this happen. This remit must logically also involve helping to deliver Labour's pledge to "halve the number of people in low pay by 2025".

It also seems that sectoral minimum wages will be considered, and although detail is light, this could be the re-emergence of something like the sectoral wage boards that were abolished by Thatcher (except the agricultural wages board that was abolished under Cameron). Minimum wage enforcement will also be toughened both through HMRC (as now) and through local authorities (with what resources?)

Government procurement will also be used to "promote the campaign for a living wage", which is rather more woolly than simply saying, the government will only procure from living wage employers. All companies in Labour's first year in office will be offered a tax offset if they pay the living wage.

On tax policy, the commitment to reintroduce the 10% starting rate of tax is confirmed, but with no detail on what banding of income, though it will "benefit 24 million people on middle and lower incomes".

Clear red water

Despite the need for more detail in some areas, and the need to go further in places, this manifesto contains enough meat on the bones to put clear red water between Labour and the Tories. Even where the detail is lacking, the direction of travel is infinitely better than the Tory alternative and significantly more so than under New Labour

However, these proposals do lack the defining simplicity and boldness of John Smith's 'charter for employment rights', to "give all working people basic rights that will come into force from the first day of employment. We will give the same legal rights to every worker, part-time or full-time, temporary or permanent". Now that really was a rallying cry.

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