Policies on and around employment: what we know so far
Whilst the media are framing this election as the Brexit election and many others are fighting for there to be a climate focus, more so than at any point for a generation this election will also be about working life and its future. Amongst increasing reports of overwork, underemployment, in-work poverty and the reshaping of the work-force by the gig-economy and workplace technologies, politicians have been forced to respond with tangible policies that address these very real issues.
While, at the time of writing, the parties are yet to release their 2019 manifestos, they all published manifestos in 2017 and have all, in the past two months, held party conferences knowing full well they were heading towards a general election. Here we will summarise the incumbent or recently announced policies of the major UK political parties; it will draw on their 2017 manifestos, but also reflect where conferences or other announcements have added to or superseded those manifestos. As parties in devolved nations, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru do not have the same potential powers over legislation as other parties. However, the SNP have produced a ‘Fair Work Action Plan’, and so their intentions have been included where possible.
The results are summarised in the below grid, followed by summaries of each issue. We have coded each party’s position with different colours according to our evaluation of their stated or expressed stance on the issue at hand:
Uncertain / has some merit
For example, we see a Living Wage as a crucial update of the minimum wage legislation so have coded parties favourably depending on how close they get to this mark. Equally, zero-hour contracts and unpaid internships are some of the most exploitative and damaging work practices around, and so we have favoured harsher stances towards these phenomena. We’ve also included an economic idea that is relatively new to the political landscape in the UK but that is a key focus of Autonomy’s: basic income.
Upon the release of the party manifestos we shall publish a new grid, with a new evaluation.
Maintaining EU worker rights
The most significant change to working life as a result of the forthcoming election comes from the sudden uncertainty of workers’ rights currently maintained in EU law. These rights cover a whole suite of laws including maternity and paternity pay, paid holiday, sick pay and the working time directive. While this contingency stems, in principle, from the EU referendum in 2016, at the last election it might have been assumed that all major parties were working towards a version of Brexit that maintained these laws. An assumption which can no longer be made.
The Liberal Democrats, SNP and Green Party are all standing on a platform of remaining within the EU, so workers’ rights would be automatically retained and none have any intention to change them.
While the Labour Party’s position on Brexit still leaves the option to leave the EU after a second referendum, they have consistently maintained that any deal they negotiated would maintain EU protections on workers rights and environmental standards. Labours 2017 manifesto also pledged to create a ‘Ministry of Labour’ which would work to better enforce workers’ rights.
The Conservative Party have publicly stated they intend to maintain EU standards. However, the fact that this clause was explicitly removed from the legally binding withdrawal agreement and placed in the political declaration, has led many commentators to conclude that it is, in fact, far from certain. Given some of the previous positions of some of the Conservative front bench, worker rights might be a real point of divergence in this general election.
The living wage
The minimum wage, renamed as the ‘living wage’ by the current Government, has become somewhat of a bidding war between the parties. Although party positions have evolved in response to each other over the last few years, the current policies are as follows:
Conservatives have committed to set the living wage at two-thirds of median earnings (projected to be £10.50/hr by 2024), for everybody over the age of 21 (currently 25), within 5 years.
Labour has committed to a national living wage of £10/hr, immediately, for all workers. SNP does not have power over this legislation but will argue for £10/hr for everyone aged 18 or over, while the Greens advocate for a ‘real living wage for all’.
The Lib Dem’s policy does not have a number or a target, but is to ‘encourage’ a living wage, awarding a ‘good employer kite mark’ to those companies that pay it.
A major change to the employment landscape over the past decade has been the rise of the gig economy and zero-hour contracts. Argued by some as granting flexibility to workers, last year’s Taylor Review, commissioned by the Government, recognised zero-hours contracts as often creating ‘one-sided’ flexibility and many commentators regard them as fundamentally exploitative.
Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems have settled on the same approach to this problem, which is to legally allow employees to request a more stable contract after a given period of employment. This approach could be seen as similar to the current Government’s legislation that allows an employee to formally request flexible working hours. While it sets a precedent for workers to make requests, it does not legally oblige employers to do anything.
Labour proposes to ban zero-hour contracts completely, whilst the Greens use a particular phrasing of banning ‘exploitative zero-hour contracts’. Keeping in mind their reduced legislative powers, the SNP have created a ‘fair work badge’ for business, which cannot be awarded to those companies engaged in zero-hour contracts.
Another area of concern raised by the Taylor Review is the issue of unpaid internships. While the report recommended the Government ‘stamp out’ unpaid internships by improving both legislation and enforcement, the Government declined this recommendation and instead launched a publicity campaign to raise awareness of the issue. Similar to their stance on the living wage, the Lib Dems’ proposal is to tackle this issue by introducing a ‘good employer kite mark’ to encourage companies to ‘avoid’ using unpaid internships.
Labour and the Greens have both committed to banning unpaid internships, although the Green Party once again caveats their phrasing as ‘exploitative unpaid internships’.
Working time reductions
An enormously significant policy area has opened up around the growing idea of a ‘Four-Day Week’. While the Green Party have included this in their manifesto for many years, at this year’s party conference Labour formally announced the same. For the Greens, this is defined as moving to a 35-hour week. For Labour, it is a commitment to move to a 32-hour week within ten years. Another Labour policy on working-time, which could be seen as a transition step towards the former is to introduce four new public holidays.
It is often noted in the news that the ratio between the highest and lowest paid in UK society has increased drastically over the last few decades with FTSE 100 CEOs earning 400 times the minimum wage in 2015.
This Government has introduced legislation which forces companies of over 250 employees to publish these pay ratios, but some parties intend to apply legislative limits. The Green Party propose a 10:1 limit, but with no further detail as to how and to who this would be applied. Labour Party policy is to implement a 20:1 pay ratio limit within the public sector and for any companies that intend to bid on public contracts.
Universal Basic Income (UBI)
One of the more radical policies around work to emerge recently – although it has quite a long history – is UBI, an unconditional monthly payment to all citizens. Proclaimants of the idea say that it would free people from the administrative burden of a conditional welfare system, that it would give people the security to refuse insecure or undignified work and would lift millions of people out of poverty. Its detractors see it as an unjustified use of public money that would discourage people from working. While there have been scores of trials across the globe, there has been no major trial in the UK.
The SNP are publically in support of beginning a trial of UBI in Scotland; Labour has committed to two trials, in Sheffield and Liverpool; and the Greens, while not proposing any specific trials, are vocal advocates of the policy.
Employee ownership / representation
Another issue highlighted by the Taylor Review was the need for employees to have a stronger ‘voice in the workplace’. In their 2017 manifesto the Conservatives committed to changing the law to ensure that listed companies allowed for employee representation at the board level. The 2018 update to the Government’s ‘Corporate Governance Code’, watered this commitment down significantly by suggesting ways which companies could achieve this, but stopping short of making them compulsory.
The Lib Dems say that they will ‘strengthen’ the right of employees of listed companies to be represented on the board, and will legislate to permit a ‘German-style two-tier board structure to include employees’. Beyond that, they will ‘encourage’ employee ownership at companies of 250 employees by implementing a ‘right to request shares’.
The Greens would require medium and large companies to have employee elected directors, create schemes in ‘certain organisations’, that give workers representation at all levels of management and ‘encourage the growth of Employee Share Ownership Plans’.
Labour have taken a stronger approach with their recently announced Employee Ownership Scheme. This policy would require companies of over 250 employees to, each year, transfer at least 1% of its shares into an ‘inclusive ownership fund’, up to a maximum total of 10%. These shares would be controlled by the workers and have the same voting rights as other investors, as well as allowing employees to receive up to £500 a year in dividends. This builds on their 2018 announcement that they would require large companies to reserve a third of all board seats for workers.
A seemingly minor policy, but that will undoubtedly affect a considerable number of UK workers is a commitment from both Labour and the Conservatives to ban employees from retaining any part of workers tips.