On 29 April the Labour Party announced that, as part of its 20 point election package for workers, it would ban zero hours contracts, end unpaid internships and end the public sector pay cap. Although well-received by many, the subsequent round of interviews on the Sunday morning politics shows quickly flagged up a problem: what about those who want to be employed on zero hours contracts? It was pointed out that these contracts are convenient for many, including students who want to earn some casual income when time permits. Another problem with a ban is where the line is drawn. Would, four, six or ten hours’ contracts be permitted?
Meanwhile, McDonalds has announced that it is giving 115,000 workers on zero hours contracts (approximately 10% of the entire UK zero hours workforce) the option of moving to fixed contracts with a guaranteed number of hours per week. The move came in response to feedback from staff that they were struggling to obtain loans, mortgages and phone contracts without being able to demonstrate that they had a secure income. However, in the trial run at 23 sites, 80% of staff chose to stay on their existing contracts when offered four, eight, 16 or 35 hours per week contracts (in line with their existing typical working hours).
Other notable proposals in the Labour Party’s Promise to Workers include:
- guaranteeing trade unions a right to access workplaces;
- four new Bank Holidays;
- full employment protection from day one (rather than, for example, the two year qualifying period for protection from unfair dismissal);
- abolition of employment tribunal fees;
- doubling paid paternity leave and increasing the rate payable;
- strengthening protection from redundancy when the individual concerned is pregnant or on maternity leave;
- reinstatement of protection against third party harassment.
The Conservative Party has announced that its manifesto will include the replacement of the Mental Health Act and “sweeping reforms” to the Equality Act 2010 “to protect those with depression and anxiety from being discriminated against at work”. Government guidance issued in 2013 to coincide with the launch of fit notes stated that if “work related stress” or stress arising from personal problems does not amount to a “mental illness”, the GP is to regard the patient as fit for work and so no fit note is required. The issue of what constitutes a disability for the purpose of protection under the Act has been analysed in a number of cases, most notably as I reported in the 2014 case of Saad v University Hospital Southampton NHS Trust and Health Education England. Mr Saad, a specialist registrar in cardiothoracic surgery, had a diagnosis of a depressive and general anxiety disorder. His claim failed at tribunal and on appeal because his condition did not have a substantial adverse, nor a long term, effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. If rights are to be extended it can only be assumed that these requirements for establishing a protected disability are to be relaxed or removed – a far cry from the Government guidance issued in 2013. In 2015-16 there were 488,000 separate cases of work related stress, with 11.7 million days lost, at an average of 23.9 days per case.
However, that is just work related stress. If the protection is extended to all those suffering from stress from all sources, research by BUPA has shown that this extends to a staggering 44% of the population, with 28% suffering for more than a year. The effect of an extension of rights in this area could therefore be massive. It will be fascinating to see what details in this regard are published in the manifesto.