The Conservative party proposes replacing the Human Rights Act 1998 with a new British Bill of Rights, putting in place measures to prevent the trafficking of workers and introducing changes to strike laws (including a minimum 50% strike ballot threshold and a three month-time limit after the ballot for industrial action to take place). The Labour party’s proposals included increasing the national minimum wage to £8 an hour by the end of the next Parliament in 2020, requiring companies to publish details of average pay, and ‘equal rights’ for self-employed individuals (to date it is not clear exactly what this means, or how it would work). The Liberal Democrats proposed increasing the national minimum wage for apprentices, requiring companies with over 250 employees to publish information on pay and setting up a Workers’ Rights Agency to act as a ‘one stop shop’ for workers’ rights enforcement.

In terms of omissions, none of the parties substantially addressed the issue of Tribunal fees and their effect on the number of claims being made by claimants (Labour have promised to reform the tribunal system to ensure that all workers have proper access to justice, without further detail). Politicians may be waiting for the results of Unison’s judicial review application before making any proposal in this respect, but given the significance and importance of this issue the lack of any substantial discussion of it is surprising.

There was however significant overlap between the three main parties on the issue of zero-hours contracts, with all parties proposing to reform the current regime. Of particular concern was the use of exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts. The pros and cons of zero-hours contracts are well rehearsed. Proponents of such arrangements argue that they provide employers with much-needed flexibility to respond to changing demands, whilst giving the employees important rights that would not exist if they were casual workers: protection from unfair dismissal, redundancy entitlements, continuing accrual of paid annual leave.

On the other hand, one of the primary criticisms of zero-hours contracts is that they are inherently exploitative, as they offer no guarantee of work to employees, whilst simultaneously requiring them to be constantly available (often at short notice) and preventing them from working elsewhere. This leaves employees vulnerable, with little stability or security, and with the constant threat of a loss of income due to a reduction in hours.

Whichever party is ultimately successful at the general election in May 2015, it is clear that abusive practices relating to zero-hours contracts will be tackled. Beyond that a new government will struggle to balance the rights of employees (and other categories of working people) with labour market flexibility, which many employers see as key to being able to sustain economic growth.

Posted on 24/10/2014 in Legal Updates

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