In December Christina Blacklaws, the president of the Law Society, warned in a letter to the Financial Times that employment law on workers’ rights had not kept pace with the changes in the way people work nowadays.
Her concerns were primarily for people working in the so-called ‘gig’ economy after the High Court ruled that Deliveroo riders had no right to bargain collectively.
Her letter said: “Case after case highlights concerns about how the workplace rights of employees, workers and contractors are affected by a law not fit for purpose and not easily understood. The lack of certainty means people are having to go to court to clarify their rights.”
Perhaps in some areas the situation is being clarified by case law such as the recent Supreme Court ruling re Pimlico Plumbers that a sub-contractor cannot be classed as an independent self-employed contractor for employment law purposes and should be treated as a “worker” who is entitled to holiday pay and other basic workers’ rights. This was similar to the Appeal Court ruling re Uber that its drivers should be classed as workers with access to the minimum wage and paid holidays.
The Government has published its proposals for employment law reform, which included giving workers the right to request more predictable hours, as well as offering enhanced protections for agency workers and heavier fines for malicious employers.
Not surprisingly, the more predictable hours proposal was dismissed by TUC leader Frances O’Grady as likely to give workers on zero hours contracts “no more leverage than Oliver Twist”.
No doubt, SME owners will say that the burdens placed on them by the living wage, work-place pension legislation and existing rules governing how they can and cannot treat employees are already onerous enough.
However, given the uncertainty surrounding a post-Brexit future and the fact that much of existing law protecting UK workers is EU law, it is understandable that employees are concerned about their future position.
In an effort to alleviate their concerns, the Government earlier this month issued guarantees on workers’ rights after Brexit, although this was quickly dismissed by an EU and employment law barrister as “meaningless” because there was no guarantee that a future UK Government would enact any future EU legislation protecting workers.
Certainly, the Labour party is offering the prospect of improved workers’ rights and a significant improvement in the power of Unions with a view to reversing the demise of the Unions and the lack of collective bargaining.
Independent of new legislation, the current low level of unemployment and large number of job vacancies would suggest that workers may regain some of their lost power and rights through their right to provide or withdraw their labour and more pertinently their confidence that they can offer it to another employer.
Given that many UK business sectors are already struggling with a skills shortage, particularly in engineering, construction and IT, and that any business that wishes to thrive and grow relies very heavily on its employees feeling valued and engaged with their employer’s future progress, this would seem to be one time when it is in the interests of both to ensure that workers’ legal protection is robust and secure.