employment lawflexible workinginternspart-time workerszero hours contracts

On 10 September, the Labour Party put forward plans to create a Ministry for Employment Rights and a Workers’ Protection Agency to enforce those rights.

The proposals which, obviously, would only see if the light of day if Labour won a General Election, whenever such an election may occur, are ambitious and, naturally, rather scant on detail at the moment. But, despite this, let’s have a look at a few of their proposals for changes to employment law to see if they are realistic and workable!

Proposal One – No more unpaid internships

I’m completely in agreement with this one.  If it is work experience (i.e. monitoring and shadowing staff), that shouldn’t be paid (aside from expenses).

But, if it is an internship (i.e. working for the benefit of the organisation), it should be paid and not doing so usually ensures that only those from wealthy backgrounds need apply (or, else, suffer financially from receiving zero salary with no guarantee of future paid work). This isn’t even to mention the potential minimum wage issues with offering unpaid internships…

Proposal Two – No more zero hours contracts

This is one of those proposals that looks great on paper (and perhaps in the press) but isn’t so workable in practice. Whilst zero hours contracts are open to abuse (as are all employment contracts), the majority of them are tailored to the individual situation and, should they be banned, thousands are likely to see their ‘zero hours’ arrangements being ‘informal’ in nature (i.e. subject to word of mouth and absent any written documentation at all!)

Whilst they have gained a negative reputation (which used to be semi-deserved), many employers now genuinely use them to cover staff annual leave and/or busy periods with willing staff members who can’t commit to full-time hours (usually because they have other commitments, such as students at college or university or staff with childcare commitments).

Also, let’s be honest here, it’s likely that, within no time at all, an alternative version of a zero hours contract (with a different title and slightly different content) will be dreamed up by a cunning employment lawyer or two… 

Proposal Three – Give staff the right to seek flexible working and put a duty on employers to accommodate the request

The right to seek flexible working already exists, so that’s simple enough! In terms of a duty on the employer to accommodate the request, employers already have a duty to consider flexible working requests and can only reject such an application for one of the stated reason listed within the legislation itself.

Any proposal which puts the duty on the employer to show why they can’t allow the flexible working arrangement would be near identical to the current regime (in which an employer has to provide one of the limited reasons permitted by law anyway!)

Proposal Four – A new civil enforcement system to enforce compliance with gender pay auditing

On the one hand, this is a good idea because, at present, the penalty system against companies for not publishing data is, to be polite, rather ineffective. 

However, in all honesty, the main issue involves employers providing inaccurate date rather than none at all, as per some highly publicised Gender Pay entries which defy logic and are clearly not based on realistic figures. 

Additionally, it is worth noting that Gender Pay figures need to be treated with care because, in any organisation of any due size, there will never be a simple 50%-50% divide in numbers due to the complexities of differing lengths of service, job title, pay increases (which, more often than not, follow staff threatening to leave rather than given on an equal, yearly basis) and other factors. 

Proposal Five – Creating a single status of ‘worker’ for everyone apart from those who are genuinely self-employed

This is the big one from an employment law perspective. Why? Because at present, you have three categories of individual: self-employed, worker and employee. 

Self-employed are in business on their own account, so have few rights. Workers are an intermediate class (i.e. they aren’t self-employed but nor are they ‘full’ employees, this would likely include an individual who works part-time or flexible hours for two different employers at the same time) and employees have maximum employment law rights (i.e. some rights that aren’t available to workers). I could write much more on this topic but, unfortunately, that would transform this blog into a book, so I’ll avoid doing so!

Whilst this proposed change aids simplicity, simplicity isn’t always the best thing within law because, frankly, the simpler the definition, the easier it can be to find and create loopholes to avoid compliance. Labour will need to put more meat on the bone of this one and specify exactly how they intend to change decades of legislation and case law by merging ‘worker’ and ‘employee’ as one class of individuals.

My initial thoughts? Labour’s proposals appear to seek additional employment law safeguards for staff but may need some fine-tuning to actually have a positive impact in practice, rather than simply look good as newspaper headlines.