A Day to Remember

Forget-me-not

28 April each year is International Workers’ Memorial Day (#IWMD20 #IWMD2020)

This year International Workers’ Memorial Day has a special poignancy. Like many people, last Thursday I took part in #ClapForCarers joining friends and neighbours, each on own doorsteps, to applaud NHS staff, key workers and carers. These are people for whom the risk of going to work has risen significantly in recent weeks.

Yet they still go.

Already, 82 NHS workers have died helping to save others, and recent reports from care homes demonstrate an increased risk there as well. However, we shouldn’t forget pharmacy staff, utilities workers, delivery drivers, refuse collectors, people working in food supply and retail, and many others, putting themselves at risk keeping essential services running.

Right now, taking adequate time to assess and mitigate against work related risks has rarely been more important.

In recent years, increasing numbers of people have described taking precautions to prevent work activities from injuring people as “health & safety gone mad”.  However, that view disrespects the aim to make sure people go home as healthy as they were when they arrived at work.  In spite of those measures, Health & Safety Executive statistics for last year make stark reading:

From: HSE Health & Safety Statistics 2018/19

And that’s in the UK where we’ve had the Health & Safety at Work Act in place since 1974.

Covid-19 aside, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), across the world:

  • Each year, more than 2.3 million men and women die as a result of work-related accidents and diseases
  • Workers suffer approximately 340 million accidents each year and fall victim to some 160 million incidents of work-related illnesses
  • One worker dies every 15 seconds worldwide. 6,000 workers die every day.
  • More people die whilst at everyday work than those fighting wars.

International Workers’ Memorial Day is a reminder not to be complacent, to avoid seeing common sense anticipation of ‘accidents’ (and taking steps to stop them from happening) as an unnecessary imposition.

But, right now, IMWD is an opportunity to bring to mind everyone who is at risk, for whatever reason because of their job, and thank those who gave their lives in the past as well as those who continue to risk theirs for the rest of us.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Are you dying to go home?

An accident waiting to happen? Every year more people are killed at work than in wars

 

28 April each year is International Workers’ Memorial Day (#IWMD18 #IWMD2018) so, for 2018, it falls on Saturday.

It’s hard to believe that the world of work is still so dangerous.  Many of us underestimate the risk of the things we do each day. How many people in the UK treat driving along the road as the single most dangerous thing they do?  Yet every day 5 people die doing just that.  The same goes for many of the activities we do every day at work – lifting and carrying heavy boxes, walking up and down stairs (especially while talking on your mobile phone), etc.  There’s a long list of things we all do in our working day, often without thinking, that are significantly more dangerous than we ever give them credit.

Some people describe taking precautions to prevent such activities from injuring people as “health & safety gone mad”.   However, that view disrespects the aim to make sure people go home as healthy as they were when they arrived at work.  In spite of those measures, 142 people in the UK still died after going to work in 2014/15.  Even more worrying are the estimates of 13,000 people dying each year because of past exposure to harmful conditions at work, 8,000 people dying of occupation-related cancers and 4,000 from exposure to dust, fumes or chemicals.  And that’s in the UK where we’ve had the Health & Safety at Work Act in place since 1974.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), across the world:
  • Each year, more than two million men and women die as a result of work-related accidents and diseases

  • Workers suffer approximately 270 million accidents each year and fall victim to some 160 million incidents of work-related illnesses

  • Hazardous substances kill 440,000 workers annually – asbestos claims 100,000 lives

  • One worker dies every 15 seconds worldwide. 6,000 workers die every day. More people die whilst at work than those fighting wars.

International Workers’ Memorial Day is a reminder not to be complacent, to avoid seeing common sense anticipation of ‘accidents’, and taking steps to stop them from happening, as an unnecessary imposition.

IMWD also provides an opportunity to reflect, to remember the people in the UK and across the world who have died trying to support their families and possibly to attend one of the many events to mark the Day across the country.

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

 

International Women’s Day – is it needed?

Grand Canyon, Nevada USA

Today is International Women’s Day, so I thought it was timely to reflect on perceptions of women’s place in UK society.

 

A recent survey published by Sky News has suggested that a majority of Britons think that feminism has gone far enough.  But has it?  There are clear contradictions within the findings: 70% of people think men are paid more than women for the same work; 65% believe a man will be favoured over an equally qualified woman, yet:

a total of 67% of Britons think feminism has either gone too far (40%) or gone as far it should go (27%)

Perplexingly, women themselves are almost as prone to thinking that enough is enough, with 61% either thinking feminism has gone too far (35%) or has gone far enough (26%).

Whether or not this recent finding is a manifestation of the increasing refrain of “PC gone mad” is a matter of speculation, but it is disappointing that attitudes seem to be so at odds with reality.

That said, some progress is being made – UK companies employing more than 250 people now have less than a month until they have to report their gender pay gaps, which I suspect will leave many scrabbling to reach some kind of balance.  Others may, as has been done for many years, identify that a small or reducing gap means that enough is being done.

Yet, while the gender pay gap is widest for the over 40s, alarmingly the gap for people in their 20s has been increasing, so there really is no room for complacency.

 

Article 23.2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work

The UK signed up for that 80 years ago this coming December, passed the Equal Pay Act in 1970, and pulled other discrimination together in the Equalities Act 2010, yet we still don’t seem able to deliver the non-discriminating, fair society to which those commitments aspire.  Everyone has a value, and everyone should be respected.

The sad thing is that 110 years since its origin in the USA, there is still a need for International Women’s Day because, while the UK is significantly better than many countries, we still have a very, very long way to go until women are truly treated as equals in all aspects of society.

 

Good Riddance to Employment Tribunal Fees

Well, it’s been a long time coming, but the Cameron Government’s decision to charge fees for people to raise claims in the Employment Tribunal has finally been shown to be illegal.

Created with Nokia Refocus

In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court has ruled that charging people up to £1200 so they can challenge the legality of their employer’s actions is illegal.

Fees were never introduced in Northern Ireland, and it is notable that there was no drop off in the number of applications to go to their Industrial Tribunal.  Meanwhile, across Great Britain, ET applications plummeted by 70%.  In Scotland, the SNP Government stood for election in 2015 with a pledge that, as soon as they had the power to do so, they would legislate to remove Employment Tribunal fees, justifying this on the premise that someone who has just unfairly lost their employment is unlikely to be able to find the money and will, therefore, be denied access to justice.

Introduced in 2013, fees were initially justified as being to reduce the number of “weak claims”, though a financial incentive later became apparent with the Justice Minister at the time stating

We want people, where they can, to pay a fair contribution for the system they are using, which will encourage them to look for alternatives.

That case was never particularly convincing and the result, inevitably, was that many people with a valid claim were unable to bring it because they couldn’t pay the fee.

Alongside the fees, the Cameron Government also introduced mandatory Early Conciliation.  This is a process whereby the parties, with facilitation by ACAS, can try to reach an out of court settlement and is something applicants have to do before they can complete their ET application.  Although there’s nothing wrong with this in principle, my experience of it wasn’t good.  I have found few employers prepared to negotiate towards a settlement, preferring to gamble on whether or not the applicant could find enough cash for the fee.  Perhaps, with fees now found to be illegal, there will be a greater incentive for all sides to take a more pragmatic, conciliatory approach.

Dave Prentis, the UNISON General Secretary, welcomed the Supreme Court ruling saying:

The government has been acting unlawfully, and has been proved wrong – not just on simple economics, but on constitutional law and basic fairness too.

In this context, the positive role of trade unions shouldn’t be underestimated, and not just because it is through UNISON’s expertise and persistence that this ruling has been achieved, but more locally and practically as well.  A well-trained union rep can defuse and head off the vast majority of cases referred to them, most often through facilitating a pragmatic solution, sometimes through persuading an individual that their case doesn’t stack up.  As an example, this leads to a significant reduction in the number of cases going to grievance, and those that do proceed tend to be much better presented.  This is something that many employers could easily miss.

That principle also filters through to ET applications.  Unions take great care in presenting cases, cases they support are exceptionally unlikely to be regarded by the Tribunal as “malicious, vexatious or frivolous” or “in bad faith”, and a significant proportion are successful.

Of course, most trade unions opted to pay these fees for their members, but many, many people who weren’t in a union must have been denied access to justice by this ill-conceived policy.  While it is likely that those who applied to the ET will have their fees repaid, at this stage it seems likely that those who couldn’t afford the fee at the time will have missed their opportunity, but it remains to be seen if any pragmatism will be shown in that respect.

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the issues raised in this article, so please leave a comment or, if you’d like to discuss anything more directly, please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

 

Back to the Future as wages are predicted to stay in the past

In spite of political insistence that the economy is recovering, and has been for a good while, this week the BBC’s Economics Editor has predicted that wages are likely to stagnate for a good while longer.

That conclusion isn’t really a surprise, but it will be a disappointment for many given the extent to which pay has been eroded over recent years – this report from 3 years ago pointing out that real-terms pay is stuck in a time loop at 2004.

“But pay rises haven’t been worse since the Napoleonic wars”

The Office of National Statistics’ Annual Survey of Hours & Earnings isn’t complete for 2016, but many of the draft results don’t make happy reading as far as pay growth is concerned:

  • Adjusted for inflation, weekly earnings increased by 1.9% compared with 2015, an increase due to a combination of growth in average earnings and a low inflation (more on inflation below).
  • Weekly earnings rose 2.2% for full-time workers, 6.6% for part-time workers.
  • The gender pay gap for full-time employees was 9.4% (the gap has hardly changed over the last six years).

Indeed, if you look at the cumulative impacts of pay restraint under successive Governments, the 2008 economic crisis and the seemingly never ending austerity that has followed, some public sector workers may only have seen a real terms pay increase in their lifetime if they have managed to get a promotion – and many have only done so because inflation was so low in 2014/15:

“The gross wages of the median Scottish worker are £1170 lower than if wages had kept pace with CPI inflation since 2009.”

…and that’s before you get into the debate about whether CPI, currently 2.6%, is a reasonable measure of the increased cost of living (most trade unions and many commentators prefer to use RPI, currently sitting at 3.5%, as it includes housing costs).

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787

Trade Unions face big new fines

Trade Unions face big new fines

“The number of working days lost are at historically low levels when looking at the long-run monthly time series back to the 1930s.”

Sneaking past the radar, under cover of Brexit, the Government is running a number of consultations, including ones around the Trade Union Act 2016 and Corporate Governance. The Corporate Governance review deadline has passed, so the gathered information is now being collated and interpreted, but other elements are still in play. The consultation that caught my eye was consultation on the Certification Officer’s enforcement powers. This will introduce significantly tighter rules on the election for senior positions, vetting of candidates and the management of political funds, with unions facing fines of up to £20,000 if they breach those rules.

As is often the case, there’s a stick for when things go wrong, but no carrot to encourage a more positive approach to be deployed. The consultation in process doesn’t seem to be leveling the playing field so much as presenting another set of hurdles for unions to jump in order to be effective in representing the voices of their members.

Only last November Theresa May stated “…we will shortly publish our plans to reform corporate governance, including … proposals to ensure the voice of employees is heard in the boardroom.” at the CBI Conference. She backtracked pretty quickly, and the concept that staff have a valid (essential?) voice in the successful governance of businesses and charities was diluted in the document that was published, but it was still there. There is, therefore, an opportunity for employers to provide a channel for that voice.

And all of this comes at a time when strikes are at close to their recorded low – to quote from the Office of National Statistics report UK Labour Market: Mar 2017:

“The number of working days lost are at historically low levels when looking at the long-run monthly time series back to the 1930s.”

Yet, while CEOs across the land still proclaim their staff to be their biggest asset, most still decline to draw on staff knowledge of the business, the problems it faces and many possible solutions.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Trade Union Act looms large…

This extremely useful summary by David Morgan at Burgess Paull of the upcoming changes through the Trade Union Act caught my eye, and brought to mind some of the key issues surrounding the Act.

The existence of this legislation in the first place is a bizarre piece of ideological policy making, since it certainly isn’t/wasn’t responding to an actual need. To quote from the Office of National Statistics:

“The 2015 working days lost total (170,000) is not only lower than the total last year, but is the second lowest annual total since records began in 1891 (the lowest was 157,000 in 2005).”

As well as being of questionable need, the legality of the provisions has been questioned in many quarters, but most notably, perhaps by the Governments own Equality & Human Rights Commission. In January last year, the EHCR warned that the provisions may breach international law, stating:

“As it stands, the Trade Union Bill is in danger of imposing potentially unlawful restrictions on everyone’s basic human right to strike. Joining a trade union and peacefully picketing outside workplaces is a right not a privilege and restrictions have to be properly justified and proportionate.”

Although some changes were made before the Bill passed into law, research compiled by the Industrial Law Society suggests that these did little to address concerns in relation to human rights. If this latter article is correct, although we might have expected to see a number of challenges under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights should employers opt to assert the new laws, these cases will be difficult to build and therefore may not emerge. Most of the large unions seem to be focusing their efforts on getting better organised, while experience shows that they will adapt to the new legal framework in spite of the additional inconvenience.

Interestingly, and in stark contrast to the Whitehall position, the Scottish Government announced in November 2016 that it was creating a Trade Union Modernisation Fund “to support modernisation of trade unions and help mitigate the negative impacts of UK legislation.” In that context, it will be interesting to see if there are differences of approach north and south of the border once the legislation has been enacted.

Of course, I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Brexit in the workplace – what now?

The long and the short of it is that nothing will change immediately – the impact of European case law remains unchanged, albeit the vast, vast majority of case law originates through the UK’s Employment Tribunal system (primarily at EAT and Court of Appeal).

EU Directives on Employment Law are implemented through enactment into UK Legislation, usually by Regulation, less frequently by primary legislation. In this respect, many of the laws that have originated from the EU have become workplace norms (e.g. protection of fixed-term workers and part-time workers).

There is a risk that more recent and less accepted legislation may be under pressure to be repealed (e.g. Regulations on Agency Workers). There may also be changes over time in relation to the calculation of holiday pay and accrual of annual leave during sickness absence.

No doubt a surprise to many, there are various aspects of Employment Law where the UK provides greater than that stipulated by EU Regulations. This covers holiday rights, protection against discrimination, TUPE (which covers service provision transfer in the UK, unlike elsewhere in Europe), etc.

That said,  companies working throughout Europe and currently depending on UK laws to meet the requirements for a European Works Council may need to review their arrangements.

What about the rights of EU Nationals to work in the UK?  Well, it’s again difficult to say as yet, but special permissions may be needed to work here in future, perhaps with sponsorship, as is the case for non-EU nationals, but in the meantime, EU nationals working here are entitled to stay and continue working. The main protagonists on the Leave side made contradictory statements, so it is difficult to tell what may change, though Theresa May stated a desire to clarify this point quickly, while Nicola Sturgeon has moved to say their position is secure in Scotland.

But what will happen if there are non-UK nationals applying for jobs now? If they are employed, they may be forced to leave in a year or two’s time, but NOT employing them because of that would currently be illegal discrimination.

The UK currently already has a points based system for non-EU nationals which COULD be extended, at least for skilled workers, though Tier 3 (unskilled workers) would need to be reactivated. There hasn’t been a need for non-EU unskilled workers because that gap has been filled from within the EU, but that source is clearly likely to dry up as/when the UK withdraws from the Single Market.  If employers have a need for unskilled workers that they can’t meet from domestic recruitment, this needs to be flagged up with the Government.

Here Comes the Trade Union Act 2016 (but is time running out for the union movement?)

DSCN0519So, the Trade Union Act slunk onto the Statute Book on 5th May. We now know what it says, but do we know what it means?

The short answer is “sort of”, but it’s very close to “not really”…

What we do know is that among other things:

  • any industrial action needs to follow a ballot with a minimum 50% turnout
  • ballot papers must make clear the dispute and the action proposed
  • 14 days notice of specific action must be given to employers
  • in “important public services” ballots must also be supported by at least 40% of eligible voters

We don’t actually know as yet when the provisions will come into force, but there are several other uncertainties at this stage as well.  For example, it has yet to be defined which public services are deemed “important”, though we can probably predict that it will include Health and Education.  Furthermore, as with all laws, the final impact will be shaped by cases that go through the courts so, with questions remaining on the impact of this legislation on workers’ human rights, there may be uncertainty for some time.

What is clear is that the impact in the devolved administrations will, for the foreseeable future, be minimal as the Governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have all said that they won’t be implementing the provisions of the Act. So what can we expect to see in England?

Well, the intention behind the Act is clearly stated as making it more difficult for trade unions to take legal industrial action, particularly in what are being called “important public services”. This seems to have been a response to disputes in recent years where some unions have proceeded to industrial action with significantly lower turnout than is now being demanded.  A collective breath of relief will have been taken amongst all unions that the threat to allow employers to hire agency staff to complete strikers’ work was dropped from the final legislation.

The Government has recently taken a bloody nose in relation to it’s plan to do away with “check-off”, the mechanism by which union subscriptions are paid direct from people’s salaries, in spite of that system having little or no cost for employers.  Having now established through the courts that DWP’s implementation of that approach was unlawful, the Government now risks claims for compensation from the unions that have been affected.

The unions had responded through consultation on the Trade Union Bill that it was unreasonable to dictate the levels of turnout while the Government insisted that they continue to conduct ballots by paper and post.  In that context, it’s interesting to note the concession that there will now be an independent review of electronic balloting.  In spite of that, it is also worth highlighting that there have been many troublesome disputes, notably the ongoing one with Junior Doctors in England, where the turnout has significantly exceeded those imposed by the new strictures.

Given that, it remains the best approach for employers, especially those who are not bound by Government instruction, to work with their staff, including the unions where they are present, to make sure they avoid the dispute in the first place.

A Port in a storm…

Forth Rail Bridge from Hawes Pier (small)

So, almost unnoticed behind the stramash of George Osborne’s eighth budget, the Government has been defeated again in the House of Lords over it’s Trade Union Bill.  As before, the headlines are all about the impact on Labour Party funding.  As before, the implications for trade unions and workers’ rights to organise themselves and, in particular, campaign about members’ issues have been largely skimmed over, as has the fact that several unions aren’t even affiliated to the Labour Party in the first place.  There’s more to come on this as there is another day of Review (the line by line consideration of the Bill) in the House of Lords, then the third and final Reading.  All of that against a backdrop of several high profile strikes, most of which look, from the outside, like they could have been avoided.

Neither the BMA nor Junior Doctors in England are renowned as militant types, but they see a compromise to healthcare delivery in the revised contracts they are being offered. Jeremy Hunt’s responses have done little to allay insinuations that the changes are as much politically motivated as financially, but then neither side is indicating much room for manoeuvre so it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a simple end to the situation.  Imposition of the new contracts may solve the short term problem for the Government, but it’s hardly going to encourage newly qualified doctors (or anyone else) to view NHS England as an employer of choice.

Meanwhile, Grangemouth is in the news again, this time with a dispute between Forth Ports and dock workers.  In recent years, Grangemouth has become associated with industrial unrest and high pressure tactics on all sides, largely due to the strikes called against Ineos at the Oil Refinery there in 2008 and 2013 and, while this is a different set of workers and a different employer, the rhetoric from both sides seems woefully familiar.

Having only read about these disputes, and having not been directly involved, it’s always difficult to see the full picture, but the common theme seems to be one side claiming they’ve not been consulted, the other side saying they have and that there aren’t any options but the one being presented.  It’s not always simple to understand the subtle differences between informing people, consulting them or negotiating change with them, but it’s nigh on impossible if sides don’t speak to each other.

As with most disagreements, there is unlikely to be complete truth in either position, but it does seem that the parties involved subscribe to different dictionaries and are therefore working to different definitions of many of the terms they are using. That’s not an uncommon situation but is one that, if not addressed, will damage all parties’ reputations and can only be resolved in the long term by both sides being willing to hang up their boxing gloves and start their relationship again. Working out how things got so bad isn’t easy, but is possible – and would be in the long term interests of any business that wants to develop a genuinely healthy relationship with their staff.  After all, a happy staff is a productive staff within which everyone becomes an advocate for their employer.

There’s a truism that any employer will end up with the unions that they deserve, and that unions will end up with the Management they deserve.  That’s always worth bearing in mind as, when the disputes are over, everyone will still have to work together – and surely it’s better to work somewhere that you can have a polite discussion than one where every minor disagreement becomes a major dispute?