Monday, 15 October 2012

De-mutualising fairness at work?

Perhaps if I owned a Bentley and was asked to give it up I wouldn’t find it that hard to do as I have never been in a position to own or use a Bentley, I don’t really know what they are worth. Just as the Tory frontbench think it will be all right for people to give up their employment rights. They have never had real jobs, never needed such rights and have no appreciation of what they are worth.
But I can’t understand how people would give up their rights to unfair dismissal from their jobs and their family income? Or, to put it another way, how could people give up their rights to be treated fairly? Do such rights have a value? To some they have no value and to some they are just a cost.
But we in the Labour movement, and I as a member of the Labour Small Business Forum, know they had a cost – one of over a 100 years of campaigning of hardships and struggle. To us they have a priceless value as those who went before us sacrificed to make them possible. They understood the fallacy of relying on just the good character of their employer or manager, of relying on their simple ‘benevolence’ or on their ‘charity’, or on their ‘paternalism’ – was flawed. They sought the dignity of work and fair treatment. Unions could help enforce such fair treatment, but in their absence (and outside the public sector they are largely absent) the guarantor of fair treatment is employment rights enshrined in legislation. They help make companies good places to work. To us they are priceless, but to the Tories they are valueless and costly and don’t fit inside their Downton Abbey-esque view of the world and so they propose to dispose of them.
George Osborne’s idea whereby employees can trade away their employment rights for a few plastic shares is the sort of scheme that would be rejected out of hand by the FSA as a consumer con-trick. It seems that there is to be a tariff on maternity and paternity leave and childcare. What price equality in the workplace? Ask George. What is the value of family life and the right to take time off unpaid when your children are ill? Ask George. Can Dad’s take time off too? What is the value of speaking out against bullies in the workplace? Ask George. They plan to buy us all off.
For Osborne has ready a great scheme to de-mutualise the fair society. I know that none of them have had a job outside of politics. They don’t know what it is like to start a new job and find slipped in with your new contract a form asking you to waive the working-time directive. They don’t know what it is like to see their friends lose their jobs because their faces don’t fit on the day before they acquire employment rights. I do. They don’t know what it is like to see a friend return from maternity leave only to see that they have been demoted. I have seen all this in past jobs.
But I have seen also the ashen faces of managers when they realise that they can’t get away with it, that they are being judged by both moral standards and legal requirements. That they have both moral and legal responsibility to the people they employ. What keeps bad managers in check are employment rights – they are the silent guarantors of fair treatment in the workplace because bad managers are forced to work within those parameters. They mean that we don’t surrender our civil rights when we clock on, that we are going to be treated with dignity and respect at work.
I know that some abuse their rights but, ironically, most of the cases I know of occur in the public sector and not the private sector. When cases do go to tribunals and the employees win, how can that be a travesty of justice? How can the fact that someone can prove that they have been discriminated against, abused or bullied be wrong?
I am all for employee ownership of shares and all for helping small firms recruit new staff and to grow small business ownership but there needs to be a fair balance of rights and responsibilities between staff and employers. Stripping away employment rights isn’t the solution.
Ironically if you own shares in many companies you can’t sell them on the open market and often have to sell them back to the company when you leave. So the company AGMs will be a hoot – since unless the staff vote through what the management want they could get the sack and lose their shares. It is Conservative democracy in action. Only they could come up with such a plan, as only they are so out of touch with the real world.
By Philip Ross - originally published by Progress 

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