Friday, 31 March 2017

Your Employment Is At Risk

As the Green Party votes on its approach to Brexit, some thoughts on what the real priorities should be for party policy on the British workplace. This article was first published on the Green Left website and in the Watermelon newsletter distributed at Green Party and Global Greens conference in Liverpool.

In the run up to the referendum, the Leave campaign talked repeatedly about the need to remove EU regulations that allegedly hold back the UK. As the debate descended into little more than internecine Tory grunting, neither side offered any explanation of what EU regulations cover, leaving voters to wonder what they were never mind their merit. And since the vote for Brexit, the Greens’ focus on staying in the Single Market may mean that we lose sight of the need to defend what truly is at risk – and what sort of society we could be looking to build instead.

While there is no question that a wide range of employment rights, especially in respect of discrimination, do derive from EU directives and agreements, many more do not but are arguably even more at risk in the gung-ho “entrepreneurial” environment May and her ilk are seeking to craft. While we argue about access to a free trade zone that is in many respects inimical to our long-term aims of localised and sustainable economics, employers’ think tanks are joining with their Tory allies to seek a bonfire not so much of EU regulations but of all employment rights.

Their adopted tone however is not the shotgun blast of the past, but rather an insidious, devious range of tactics aimed to divide employees and play people off against each other. The “choices approach” where employers offer staff a menu of rights linked to their performance at work – i.e., longer maternity leave for prized workers; varied periods of probation before employment protection is activated, etc – will be formulated to appeal to enough people, initially, to gain some level of acceptance. All this is proclaimed in the name of national competitiveness, when in fact the collective concept of “national” couldn’t be any further from the reality of corporations carving up even more of the cake for themselves. Having in effect destroyed collective trade union rights, they are now finally coming for the rights of individual employees and workers.

Yet we are mistaken in seeing the EU as a guarantor of our workplace security. Its’ flagship Acquired Rights Directive (better known in the UK as TUPE) offers little more than a fig-leaf of protection to transferred workers. Similarly, Brussels and the ECJ were nowhere to be seen when the Lib Dem Ministers in the Coalition introduce fee arrangements which have led to an 80% collapse in employment tribunal hearings.

The protections we have against unfair dismissal, the right to a written contract, the right to equal pay for work of equal value, the right to paid holidays and to bank holidays, the national minimum wage – all these come from British law, not European.

So are Greens making a strategic mistake in putting our energy into remaining in the single market in the belief that it protects workers? In truth, what workplace protections it does require are ultimately about ensuring no single member can undercut another rather than about the inherent rights of workers. It is about regulated capitalism, not human rights.

As the EU faces major “populist” challenges to liberalise its economy, in spite of the fact it already largely has been, Greens need to argue for positive rights in the British workplace as these will be squeezed out regardless of our membership status. It is imperative we use this time of change to advocate for the type of economy we want to develop, one which is not dependent on the protection of some distant behemoth of questionable repute, but rather one that rests firmly and deeply in our society and its shared values.

Now is the time to be calling for a business environment that gives breaks to co-operatives, community enterprises, employee buyouts and takeovers. Now is when we should be advocating hardest for the living wage AND the citizens’ income (not either or, but both) and even for some level of protectionism as we take key industries into democratic ownership. Corporate law should be transformed to end its cosy legalisation of profit-maximisation as PLCs sole objective to instead a range of duties to employees, communities and the environment. And we must be clear that we are happy to show the door to those who threaten to go – that is real “taking back control”.

Alongside this, we should be arguing for a root and branch change to the whole employment relationship. Incredibly, though maybe unsurprisingly, our employment rules still rest on the 18th century Master and Servant laws. While heavily modified over the years, the idea that you are a servant and your employer is your Master remains the central legal concept in the employment relationship. In any democratic society, this is a complete nonsense and it is time to turn it on its head, prefiguring of course a transformation of ownership rights and the control of enterprises.

For ecosocialists such as those of us in Green Left, there is also a wider debate to be had as we move towards a world where technology has the capacity to set more and more free from labour and how the abundance in both time and resources is used equitably and sustainably. The day is not far away when, as human labour is less central to material productivity and service delivery, the whole concept of paid employment can be done away with. As we develop that argument, of course, we will be charged with everything from utopian dreaming to economic treason, but as we know, if we don’t map the path for real change, capitalism will do it for us and take our planet in a very different, very hostile and very dark direction.

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