The new Employment Bill, which would help standardise and enforce better rights for UK workers, was first proposed by the Conservatives in their 2019 election manifesto. One of the key benefits of the bill, which was expounded by the government as the UK reeled from Brexit, was to make flexible working a default, a key area requiring clarity now as we come out of the most flexible period of working life the UK has ever seen. The bill was also a response to anger over working conditions in factories and warehouses in the UK and was to include better protections for pregnant employees and the hope of cracking down on the employment law abuses of rogue bosses by creating a single enforcement body. Now it seems, the three-year wait for the bill will be extended further with Cabinet Office insiders revealing that work on it had ceased and it is now unlikely to be included in the Queen’s Speech.
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress has said the bill’s delay will give a “green light to rogue employers to treat staff like disposable labour.” And certainly, the recent P&O mass sackings revealed that until the bill is passed, UK workers have very little comeback when employment law and staff rights are abused. When it comes to the enforcement of Employment Law at present, it is simply not robust enough, resulting in widespread and continuing cases of workers being treated unfairly. Some of the biggest gaping holes in urgent need of the new legislation can be seen in the gig economy and the hospitality industry. Employees working in these areas often have Zero hour and variable hour contracts as a way to cover gaps in shifts and, for some bosses, the use of ad hoc working patterns is a central strategy in the profitability of their businesses. Workers, whatever industry they work in, should have a right to stable contracts. Current legal loopholes are especially damaging for those who are more vulnerable such as the disabled, those who are pregnant or those who have to work around providing unpaid care. For them, the issues of temporary contracts, rigid working conditions and zero hours are more pressing.
In addition to the Employment Bill, there is other important delayed legislation which needs to be expedited by the government. The government announced that in 2023 they may implement extra statutory leave and pay for all working parents of premature babies and babies needing specialist care in neonatal units. The government confirmed in March 2020 that they intend to offer 12 weeks paid leave for parents in this position. But since then, no further information has been released, and while we wait, parents already facing the stress of a preterm birth continue to have to juggle this alongside their working commitments. The government also planned to introduce tribunal sanctions to target companies that were committing repeated employment law breaches – there’s no date for when this could be implemented but it would encourage companies to learn from their mistakes and not commit similar offences.
It is not just workers who are likely to be impacted negatively by a delay in proper legislation. Maintaining the status quo which allows for loopholes and gaps in employment law is also bad for business. Rogue and unscrupulous approaches can have a huge impact on the reputation of a business with employee dissatisfaction having a ripple effect out to customers and suppliers alike. It will also put off the best talent. Ultimately, we know that employees today expect much more from work and as ‘the Great Resignation’ starts to unfold, workers are more in demand and the best talent is less available. All these factors mean workers are now far less likely to put up with one-sided rights. We’re entering a time of rebalancing and employers who want a happy and productive workforce need to make sure they are on the right side.
When it comes to regulating the workplace for employees, and creating a better business for employers, having good legislation in place is critical. Rules and regulations must be enforceable. There are lots of employers that are ethical and have great moral approaches, but there are others that don’t – and having clear and unambiguous legislation means these types of employers will be liable for any potentially poor decisions they take. It also means that workers have the right to raise complaints or tribunal claims about these poor decisions too. The right legislation will also help business owners, by giving them a framework to work within, it creates standards and sets expectations for which employees can align themselves around.
One positive result of the Employment Bill’s delay is that employers have an opportunity to stand out by going above and beyond what is currently expected of them by law. Employers can differentiate themselves by creating progressive policies which support their staff and creates a great place to work. The bill raises some critical issues when it comes to employees’ rights such as Zero Hours contracts, loopholes around sick pay and the right to work flexibly, and employers should address these first, but there are a whole host of other areas which will also improve and enhance the workplace. Companies which are able to read and respond to employees’ needs and priorities will have a more engaged workforce and improved levels of productivity and retention. Auditing your staff is a useful way to discover any particular gaps or nuances you may not have considered when it comes to the working culture you are creating. When we conducted research amongst our own team in regards to staff absences, we were surprised to learn that 50 percent of leave was for mental health reasons. It was that insight which led to us creating Mental Health sick days for our staff as part of our wider Mental Health policy. Other areas employers could look at developing are gender neutral approaches to parental leave, enhanced flexible working options (could employees work abroad?), development budgets and reduced working hours (bearing in mind that a 4-day working week may not be practical for everyone.)
When the Employment Bill does eventually go through, the detail that is likely to be included following the good work plan will go a long way to protect workers and strengthen their rights. It should also promote fairness, allow flexibility for workers and working families, along with building on measures that protect those who are part of the gig economy. But even then, more could be done. The statutory rates of pay should be looked at again for maternity / paternity / adoption and shared parental leave – and sick pay for that matter. These rates are currently extremely low, the government should offer more support to employers unable to fund higher rates. The national minimum wage could also be increased further so it is in line with the current inflation. While we wait for this to happen, it is up to individual employers to plug the hole and provide fair places to work at the most basic level. And once this is done, they should consider secondary policies which will feed-into a positive culture for staff. Workers are looking for more flexibility and support, so it’s essential that employers consider more progressive policies to retain their best team members. For a business to be successful in the long run, it’s critical to create a great culture so staff are their happiest and consequently most productive.
Alisa Mistry is HR Advice Manager at Charlie HR, a service which offers on-demand HR advice and HR software for SMEs: