Thursday, 27 January 2011

Sacking with CONfidence

It was only a matter of time: having picked off the disabled, the elderly, the public sector and others, the Conservative Government is now turning its attention to slashing employment rights of British workers. The Business Secretary, the loose-talking Lib Dem stooge, Vince Cable, who used to work for such enlightened employers as BSkyB, has just announced a consultation process on changes to employment protection law. Among other measures designed to make it ever harder for workers to secure any protection against ill-treatment, the proposals will double the period of time employees need to work before gaining legal protection against unfair dismissal. If, as is almost certain, this neo-liberal "flexibility" measure goes through to the statute book, staff will have to work for two years rather than the current one year before they can seek any redress if their boss just looks at them one day and tells them to get out.

Government Gangmaster-in-chief Vince Cable
The Great Myth is that the current employment protection laws we have are dreadfully complicated, cost employers millions of pounds and make it virtually impossible to sack anyone, even if they are useless at their job/thieves/never at work, etc. The media regale us again and again with tales of people getting hundreds of thousands of pounds because their line manager looked at them the wrong way - political correctness gone mad!

Except none of it is true.

Employers can pretty much dismiss with impunity as long as they follow a set procedure and have reasonable grounds for their decision. Only if they dismiss someone (presently with more than 12 months service) without good reason or without following a process that complies with the ACAS Code of Conduct is there any chance that an Employment Tribunal will find against them - and in total just one in ten submitted unfair dismissal claims actually reach a full hearing and win.. Even if an employer loses a case and unfair dismissal is found to have occurred, the average award made to an unfairly dismissed employee is a paltry £9,120. The median award was just slightly over £4,000 in 2009-10.

The average award is therefore about five months' pay for the average earner, even although they have been found by law to have lost their livelihood.unfairly and will almost certainly struggle to find other work. And even worse, in 40% of cases where unfair dismissal is found to have happened, no award at all is made. So, in other words, less than 6% of submitted claims of unfair dismissal end up in a tribunal hearing where a financial award is made against the employer.

To claim this protection makes it difficult for employers to hire and fire staff, stifling entrepreneurship and preventing job opportunities for people who need work, is quite frankly a pernicious lie. Doubling the period without protection will help no one apart from unscrupulous slavers who want even longer to be able to "let people go" with absolutely no need to account for their actions, regardless of the impact on people and society.

There are, to be acknowledged, some "no-win-no-fee" legal firms that do sometimes lead to groundless claims being submitted in the hope of getting a compromise payment from a former employer, but tribunals already have the power to dismiss frivolous claims. Doubling the period of protection will by contrast simply leave innocent people vulnerable to the employers' they depend on for their livelihoods even longer - a shocking power imbalance. Ironically too, it may lead to some reluctance among staff to look for new jobs, reducing healthy turnover in many companies or organisations - if you are reasonably secure in your current job, why would you want to go and find another one if it meant that for 24 months you could be dismissed on a whim?

If society is about more than making money for owners, serious reform of our employment laws is needed. Capitalists argue that employers create employment for workers and so must be given the advantage in our economic arrangements. For this reason, British employment law is even now based on the traditional legal concept of the rules of "Master and Servant", whereby the master (the employer) has an absolute power over the servant (the employee) who in turn has an absolute obligation to obey. Thanks largely to the efforts of the trade unions, statute law has mitigated this appalling construct to some extent, but it remains core to the way the employment relationship functions. Yet where would employers be without their staff? As often touted in management manuals and corporate propaganda, businesses are their people - so the law should expect businesses to treat their people with some respect and dignity.

This blog has argued for a fundamentally different, socialist society. In its absence, the only fair alternative would be employment laws which provide protection from day one of employment - this would still allow dismissal if for genuinely fair reasons and via a thorough and fair process; but where unfair dismissal is found, the damages incurred by the employer should be punitive rather than the piss-poor half-hearted compensatory ones that currently apply.

The media and the Government of course will rail that such an arrangement would damage business. Yet even many of the people who write such twaddle ignore the fact that they are employees themselves, along with over 85% of working people and as such potentially subject to the arbitrary action of their employers. Fortunately, not all employers behave in unfair or arbitrary ways, but many people have suffered greatly at the hands of those who do, and if Vince Cable and his gang-masters have their way, these hands will be even more maliciously powerful than they have been in nearly two decades.

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