Monday, 5 August 2013

Enterprise Britain

The Coalition's supposedly "red-tape free flexible economy" has been exposed for what it is this week - exploitative and seedy in turn; yet at the very moment the torchlight is shone into some of the darker corners of the British workplace, new employment tribunal rules and the near destruction of legal aid will make it harder still for anyone to obtain justice in the workplace.

First has come the revelation that a number of prestigious and highly profitable organisations operate zero-hours contracts where staff are guaranteed no work or pay at all, but have to be available at short notice at the whim of the employer and in many cases need to obtain permission to work for anyone else. The Royal Household, never a paragon of good employment practice, heads this list of shame, followed by Cineworld and a string of retailers. This morning, the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development released the results of a survey of employers which suggests one million people in Britain are on such precarious contracts - five times the official government figure but almost certainly a substantial underestimate of the real picture. The voluntary and public sectors, reflecting (in many, though not all cases) the impact of austerity, use such arrangements far more frequently than the private sector - almost twice as often.

Some, including the Green Party leader Nathalie Bennett, have called for zero hours - or casual contracts - to be abolished. A total ban could be misjudged - there are, occasionally, circumstances where a casual arrangement can be to the benefit of both parties, as long as it is genuinely one where there is no mutual obligation on either side and it is for truly occasional work. However, many of those on zero hours arrangements in fact report being used pretty much on a full time basis with their employers demanding their presence when needed with no real opportunity to decline the "offer" of work.

It is dubious practice - where someone is used regularly, contrary to what the media and many campaigners have been saying, the law in fact applies similar and in many respects identical rights as it does to those on more regular contracts. Pro rata to time worked, a casual employee accrues the same rights to holiday pay, sick pay and employment protection as anyone on a more regularised contract - in law. But in reality, their employers often don't recognise these rights and, in the absence of unionised workplaces, the only way someone can seek to assert their rights is to go to an employment tribunal.

And, as of this week, it is now much harder for anyone to do so - to take a case, you will now need to pay a deposit of up to £1,200 - a tall order if you are on a zero hours contract or have just been dismissed. If you lose your case, which most people do (contrary to media myth), you forfeit the money - on the other hand, even if you win, with the average payout for losing your livelihood hovering around £7,000, it's not exactly the most effective process for realising justice. Moreover, legal aid has now been withdrawn from nearly all employment cases, so aside from your deposit, you will now either have to fight your case by yourself, go to a no-win, no-fee lawyer or hire a solicitor with the near certainty that even if you win hands down, you are likely to end up out of pocket.

The Tories and Lib Dems claim that this will stop vexatious claims - well, it might, but surely there would have been an easier way of filtering these out. What the combined impact of the legal changes and the ever-growing casualisation of employment and insecurity of employment means is that even the most shocking abuses of employment law will now increasingly go unchallenged - which is the true agenda behind these changes (Vince Cable, the Cabinet Minister for business, has already doubled the probation period for one to two years before employees gain any employee protection, as well as making it easier for employers to "suggest" to staff they should leave via "protected conversations" where there is little effective comeback). More and more, bad employment practices and greedy owners and shareholders will slice their pounds of flesh from their workforce knowing that they are virtually unassailable. Collective rights were destroyed twenty years ago with the defeat of the unions by the last Tory Government; now this one is wiping out the rights of individual employees too.

But no worries, as they keep telling us, there is always work for the willing. Just this week, in spite of David Cameron railing about the need to curb internet pornography last week, it seems live porn is ok - a Government Jobmatch website has been advertising jobs for lap dancers in contravention of their own rules. This includes vacancies at the "Sugar & Spice" American Style Table Dancing Club, which offers topless and naked dancers.

How long before "Gentlemen's Clubs" are sponsoring apprenticeship pole dancers? How long before someone turning down such a "career opportunity" has her benefits cut? It seems only a matter of time and yet more breath-taking flexibility on the part of our enterprising Ministers.

Coming next: the wiping out of workplace safety. Welcome to the New Victorian Age.

There's always moonlight and music, and lap-dancing. (source- "The Independent")

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