Labour has quietly dropped key policies to guarantee basic rights and protections at work and strengthen trade unions – a U-turn that would harm millions of the country’s most exploited workers.

Labour appears to have abandoned key commitments to strengthen workers’ rights. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

In his important speech at the GMB Congress in June, Keir Starmer addressed the Labour Party’s flagship A New Deal for Working People.  Launched at the Labour Party Conference in 2021, A New Deal sets out a progressive programme of workers’ rights to reset the balance of power in the workplace.  In the course of a short speech, Starmer re-heated the Party’s commitment to a number of the themes in A New Deal, with a manifesto clearly in sight and the need for union support on doorsteps clearly in mind. 

So we have a commitment to a familiar list of issues.  Labour will ban zero-hour contracts, extend parental leave, strengthen flexible working and provide better protections for pregnant women.  It will also close ethnicity pay gaps, guarantee fundamental rights from day one, extend statutory sick pay to all, remove one-sided flexibility, and prohibit fire and rehire.  Although the commitments were extensive, there were nevertheless some notable omissions from this otherwise impressive list. 

Another U-turn?

As we have pointed out elsewhere, one of these relates to sectoral collective bargaining. Under A New Deal, the Labour Party is committed to establishing ‘Fair Pay Agreements’ ‘across the economy’. (A Fair Pay Agreement is collective agreement setting rates and other terms across an entire sector of the economy.) This is designed to stem the decline in collective bargaining coverage, with government data suggesting that only 26.6 percent of employees have their pay directly affected by collective agreements  This is by some way among the lowest in Europe, where EU Member States are now legally bound by EU law to meet a target of 80 percent coverage. 

Yet while Starmer refers to Fair Pay Agreements in his GMB speech, the commitment is limited to care workers only. There is no mention of anyone else. The only other reference to collective bargaining relates to Amazon, where the Labour leader wants to see it, and ‘businesses like it’, recognise trade unions.  But there is no indication of how this is to be done, apart from a vague commitment to ‘strengthen the role of trade unions in our society’. But clearly that will not happen in today’s industrial context without a strong legal obligation to bargain collectively. Desire is no substitute for action.    

Not only does Starmer’s speech writer fall short on sectoral collective bargaining, there is no reference to how union rights might otherwise be strengthened, which is odd given the audience.  Nothing about reforming the trade union recognition procedure to ensure that Amazon (and other) workers can be fully represented, nothing about trade union rights of entry to workplaces to speak to workers as several unions have demanded, and nothing about the commitment to ensure that domestic law ‘complies in every respect’ with international legal obligations as A New Deal stipulates. 

Unequal Rights

The other glaring omission from Starmer’s speech is any reference to a ‘single status’ of ‘worker’, a crucial commitment in A New Deal designed to ensure the universal application of all workers’ rights. This is a basic principle of labour law, as it is human rights law. As matters stand at the moment, however, protection depends on whether someone is engaged as an ‘employee’, a ‘worker’, or a self-employed contractor. A ‘worker’ has fewer rights than an ‘employee’, and an independent contractor has fewer rights than a worker. 

The commitment in A New Deal is that there should be a single status of ‘worker’.  This means that employment rights will apply to all who work for a living unless they are genuinely self-employed and running their own business.  That is to say, employment rights will apply ‘regardless of sector, wage, or contract type’, and that everyone ‘will be afforded the same basic rights and protections’. A New Deal makes it clear moreover that this will apply specifically to ‘sick pay, holiday pay, parental leave, protection against unfair dismissal and many others’. 

It is to be hoped that the omission of this commitment in Starmer’s speech is an oversight on the part of its author.  Failing to address this anomaly will continue to deny the most vulnerable to the most basic protections and will contradict Starmer’s commitment to eliminate ‘insecure jobs and bad work, with a stand-aside State’.  It would also contradict his concern that ‘nobody does their best work if they’re wracked with fear about the future if their insecure contract gives them no protection to stand up for their rights at work’.  

More notably, it would render completely pointless the commitments relating to zero-hours contracts, hire and rehire, and flexible working arrangements.  If these rights are to apply only to employees, Starmer will thereby create an even greater incentive for employers to hire workers on precarious contracts, thereby undermining his apparent commitment to ‘provide the security denied to working people for decades’ and the ‘dignity and esteem which comes with respect in the workplace’. 

To be clear: without a single status and universal protection, the risk of retaining the existing three categories of working arrangements is that the ban on zero-hours contracts will apply only to employees, so that employers will continue to be able to offer precarious terms to ‘workers’. And if unfair dismissal law is to continue to apply only to employees, how will it be possible to stop fire and rehire if the person sacked for refusing to accept a unilaterally imposed contractual variation is a ‘worker’ and not an ‘employee’? 

So, as the manifesto for the next election comes into view, there is a need for a focus on workers’ rights that reflects the commitments made in A New Deal. If trade unions are to be strengthened, it must begin with legal measures that expand collective bargaining coverage.  

If workers’ rights are to be strengthened, it must begin with measures that close loopholes and ensure that employment rights apply equally to everyone. Otherwise we are poised—intentionally or otherwise—simply to repeat the mistakes made by the Blair governments.

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