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5 government promises on workers' rights that could be broken if the Employment Bill is dropped

The government was praised for announcing policies to improve workers' rights. But what happens if, as feared, the Employment Bill is dropped?

Industrial disputes are at a five-year high in the UK as trade unions take on employers to demand better deals for workers. Image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona / Unsplash

The government has been accused of breaking its promise to improve workers’ rights by reportedly ditching plans for an employment bill. 

The recent P&O Ferries scandal, which saw almost 800 crew members illegally sacked, has highlighted the weak points of Britain’s employment law. Without an independent body to hold law-breaking employers accountable, companies can get away with abusing the rights of their employees. 

Meanwhile, the precarious nature of work in the gig economy and for people on zero hour contracts has been highlighted repeatedly in the past couple of years. 

Many had hoped that the long-awaited Employment Bill would bring together policies to address these issues, but such a bill has, reportedly, been left out of the Queen’s Speech to open parliament on Tuesday. 

An employment bill in some shape or form was promised back in 2019, leaving many frustrated at the continued postponing of legislation to protect working people. 

Here are the government’s policies that could have formed an employment bill.

Right to request flexible working from day one

To much fanfare, the government announced plans in September to make it an employee right to request flexible working from day one in all jobs. Of course, bosses could still turn down the request with justifications ranging from decreased productivity to logistics, but it would lower the current requirement that states an employee must have been in their role for 26 weeks before putting in a request. 

Announcing a consultation on the plans, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “It was once considered a ‘nice to have’, but by making requests a day one right, we’re making flexible working part of the DNA of businesses across the country.” 

Encouraging flexible or hybrid working would help to give people who are under-represented in Britain’s workforce, such as new parents or disabled people, access to more opportunities. 

Make it illegal for bosses to withhold staff tips

Moves towards a cashless society, sped up by the pandemic, have made it easier for restaurants to make their own decisions on what to do with tips paid by customers on card. While some restaurants choose to split tips evenly with all employees of a restaurant, others may give a greater proportion of the tips to more senior employees, or even withhold them entirely. 

To tackle “shameful tipping practices”, the government unveiled plans to make it illegal for employers to withhold tips from workers, giving a financial boost to “​​two million people working in one of the 190,000 businesses across the hospitality, leisure and services sectors.”

The announcement also admitted that “most hospitality workers – many of whom are earning the national minimum wage or national living wage – rely on tipping to top up their income.”

But the proposal has, reportedly, been dropped from the Queen’s Speech – despite the commitment having been first made six years ago.  

More predictable work for those on zero hours contracts

Plans to make it a right for employees who work variable hours (including workers on zero hours contracts, agency workers and those in the gig economy) to request a more predictable and stable contract were outlined in the government’s 2018 Good Work plan.

After 26 weeks’ service, employees would be able to request arrangements including minimum guaranteed hours and fixed days of work, to “empower workers and give them greater control over their own lives.”

A lack of security around working hours and income means many people can struggle to get a mortgage, arrange affordable childcare, or become financially stable. 

With unemployment at a low, but insecure work pushing thousands into poverty, there have been calls for the government to take job insecurity more seriously. As well as legislating against it, think tanks Autonomy and the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class) have recommended that job insecurity replace unemployment as the government’s key metric for measuring the state of the labour market.

Many had expected the proposals in the Good Work to be made good in the Employment Bill. 

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Introduction of an employment watchdog

In June 2021, BEIS announced plans to create a new, powerful “workers’ watchdog” to clamp down on workplace abuse. The one-stop shop would improve enforcement of employment law, as well as “ensure employees and businesses know where to go for help on workers’ rights.”

At present, some options are available to workers, but raising grievances is rarely easy. If an employee believes their employee rights are being broken, they are encouraged to report issues around the minimum wage or sick pay to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

Citizens Advice Scotland says it saw some “staggering cases of workers being mistreated” during the pandemic, such as workers denied statutory sick pay, working hours withdrawn as a form of punishment, and the use of zero-hour contracts to side-step employee rights.

Spokesperson for the charity, David Scott, has called on the Westminster government to bring forward “an employment rights watchdog with real teeth to tackle bad bosses.”

But eleven months after the announcement of the plans, BEIS has told the Big Issue the department is still considering how this substantial organisational change would work. BEIS said that it remains committed to its plans for a single enforcement body to protect and enhance workers’ rights.

Protections against pregnancy discrimination

The 2019 version of the Employment Bill was expected to contain measures to extend “redundancy protections to prevent pregnancy and maternity discimination.” Mothers were harder hit by the pandemic than fathers in terms of redundancies and their employment opportunities. Young women were the group most likely to be placed on furlough, leading to a widening of the gender pay gap during the pandemic.   

While many organisations including Maternity Action have expressed their disappointment that it looks again as if the long-promised bill will not feature in the Queen’s Speech, they have highlighted it is even more important that ministers introduce Tory MP Maria Miller’s Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection) Bill. 

This would prohibit redundancy during pregnancy and maternity leave, and ensure that employers don’t punish new parents on their return to work by protecting their employment contracts for six months back at work.

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