Sack us please, we're British

You're fired, and there's nothing you can do about it

Blog looking at the coalition government’s plan to take unfair dismissal protection away from workers in post less than two years, and comparing the responses of UK to French workers to the changes.

Last year the government announced that it was going to be overhauling employment law as part of its austerity programme.1

A key plank of the changes is the extension of the time employees have without unfair dismissal protection from one year to two years. From April 6, 2012, employees sacked within the first two years with an employer will not be able to claim unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal (ET) except in cases of "automatically unfair" firings (due to someon a e's ethnicity, gender, trade union activities, or other protected characteristic).2 But of course proving sackings for automatically unfair reasons can be impossible in many cases.

In a barefaced bit of Orwellian doublespeak, Liberal Democrat business secretary Vince Cable stated that he was bringing in this change, making it easier for employers to sack people, in order to help create jobs!

This will have the effect of effectively casualising an even larger proportion of the workforce nominally on "permanent" contracts. Doing some quick calculations, I estimate that in time it will effectively mean that around a quarter of workers at any one time will have no job security.3

Apart from the fact that workers will feel more insecure, employers will be able to exploit this additional insecurity by bullying workers into working longer and harder without extra pay, and it will discourage more workers from standing up for themselves.

Even now, ETs are heavily biased towards employers. Contrary to many people's perceptions fuelled by occasional headlines about big payouts and "compensation culture", tribunals offer only minimum protection to workers in the vast majority of instances. Only 9% of unfair dismissal claims are successful, and the average payout is around £5,000 - which hardly compares to the lost wages even of a low-wage job. On top of this, millions of casual workers such as agency staff, have no rights against unfair dismissal at all.

Where the law cannot protect people's jobs, it leaves workers' solidarity as the only force which can. At my work, the only person management tried to sack in her first year who kept her job was one who had a near unanimous vote in favour of strike action in her support.

Further planned changes include the introduction of sizeable charges for filing ET claims , which will have the effect of discouraging many workers from exercising their rights at work, because they simply may not be able to afford to. Especially in cases such as the very common examples of wage theft in areas such as food service, the unpaid wages may amount to less than the cost of filing a claim. (This change could have an outcome, unintended from the government's point of view, in that it could lead to a rise in union membership if unions offer to pay the cost of members' tribunal claims.) Cable also states the government is considering removing unfair dismissal protection entirely from staff in businesses with fewer than 10 employees.

I thought it would be interesting to compare how the workers' movement in the UK has reacted to these changes, compared to when similar (but not nearly as bad) changes were proposed in France in 2006.

In 2006 the French government proposed introducing a new law, the CPE, which would allow employers to sack workers aged under 26 for any reason within the first two years. This is clearly far less-reaching than the new UK law. However, despite this, the country exploded.

Universities and high schools were occupied, mass demonstrations and street battles erupted across the country as millions took to the streets. When workers' strikes started, the government backed down, dropped the CPE and only passed a much-reduced version, the CNE which only applied to enterprises of fewer than 25 employees.4

By comparison, what has happened here since these changes were proposed? A couple of union leaders gave token soundbites against them in the press, and that's it.

Not only has there not been any sort of spontaneous response from the working class, but there has not been a peep from our official representatives in the trade unions.

Of course, given the UK's restrictive anti-strike laws it would be illegal to take industrial action over the changes - as it would be a "political" strike. However there has not been any kind of effort from unions to campaign or even inform their own members about this devastating change which will effectively destroy job security for a huge number of their members and potential members (not to mention all those not in a union at all).

From my union, Unison, despite being on all the reps/activist mailing lists all I have received about it is one mention in an updated legal briefing sent to senior reps - and nothing at all to lay members.

Saying this, I don't expect unions to have actually done anything about this, but I think it's a good representative example of how unions are not actually interested in representing or defending their own members, let alone the working class as a whole. They only act, usually in token ways, when they are forced to by pressure from below, when workers threaten to take some sort of action bypassing them.

Unlike proletarians in France, we haven't done that, and unless we start we can expect to continue to be shafted by employers and the government indefinitely.

Posted By

Steven.
Jan 24 2012 19:47

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Comments

Choccy
Jan 24 2012 20:04

Really disturbing development. Probationary periods and their like already discourage people from rocking the boat and this would solidify that mindset big time. Like you say, if we continue to let them, they will continue to piss all over us.

Steven.
Jan 24 2012 20:15
Choccy wrote:
Really disturbing development. Probationary periods and their like already discourage people from rocking the boat and this would solidify that mindset big time. Like you say, if we continue to let them, they will continue to piss all over us.

Yeah, basically what this means is that everyone will have a two-year probation period in future effectively.

Caiman del Barrio
Jan 24 2012 21:25

I can't see me getting any sort of employment that'll last me 2+ yrs, not until my 30s anyway!

sad

Choccy
Jan 25 2012 21:56

Word mate, even with a stable job like mine, it's so fuckin shite I want to change school rather than hang around watching arselicking poleclimbers.

Croy
Jan 27 2012 08:02

This really is bad news to say then least

the button
Jan 27 2012 11:41

Something else that isn't commonly noted is how ETs have changed in recent years, and how the process has become assimilated to the rest of the legal system. The Industrial Tribunals were originally set up as a quick, low-cost 'labour court' alternative to employment matters being pursued through the civil courts. The official presiding over the case was known as a "chair."

Significantly, they're now known as "employment judges," which exemplifies the increased legal-isation of the whole process. Back in the day when I used to prepare ITs, you had to know what you were claiming for, but you didn't have to be a lawyer. It helped if you knew key bits of case law (Polkey http://www.emplaw.co.uk/lawguide?startpage=data/070.htm for instance), but it wasn't essential.

Nowadays you're pretty much screwed unless you've got an employment lawyer. (Although from a tactical perspective, it's better to be completely unrepresented than have someone who doesn't know what they're doing).

In terms of class relations, I reckon the tribunals are among the best examples of the trade unions' role in delivering a docile workforce through adopting a legalistic "service" approach to representing their members. I've worked places where workers would wildcat when someone got fired -- no doubt they still exist (post office, maybe?), but "wait for the tribunal" is among the most effective ways of making sure this doesn't happen.

Steven.
Jan 27 2012 11:52

Yeah, tribunals were meant to be cheap, quick and easy. However, so as not to lose cases, employers started bringing in solicitors. So then workers demanded solicitors as well, which the unions provided. So it escalated.

One thing which I should have stressed in the article was that as Caiman touches upon, for many young workers this might mean them almost never having any sort of job security.

jef costello
Jan 30 2012 00:02

Just a quick point, the CNE predated the CPE and was defeated legally at least two years later (although very few employers had issued contracts under it, probably expecting them to be invalidated) and was annuled as a law in 2008.

Agree that this will further casualise workers who are already pretty badly casualised as it is. It's not easy to get a job for my generation and it's worse the younger you get. I am permanent although I still haven't been given an official contract. Which means that although I am supposedly bound to a contract by virtue of signing a pre-agreement and acceptance of the job I've never actually seen the contract, let alone signed it and I've been in post six months.
Two years is much worse as the company has to replace you less often and they save on personnel, training expenses etc.

Juan Conatz
Jan 30 2012 00:11

For someone who isn't European, what exactly is the protection? Here in the States, everything that's isn't under a union contract is 'at-will' employment. Which means you can be fired for pretty much any reason (except for being apart of a protected class or concerted activity).

Alasdair
Jan 30 2012 13:04

So, practically, what ideas does anyone have to do anything about this?

The national campaign against fees and cuts passed policy this weekend at its conference to coordinate national action on this, but I'm frankly sceptical that much will come of that (particularly as their committee has now become split between several different trot groups and has agreed a lot of campaigns at once).

Is anyone else organising anything in relation to these changes?

jef costello
Jan 30 2012 22:09
Juan Conatz wrote:
For someone who isn't European, what exactly is the protection? Here in the States, everything that's isn't under a union contract is 'at-will' employment. Which means you can be fired for pretty much any reason (except for being apart of a protected class or concerted activity).

If you are unfairly sacked you can take them to a tribunal for compensation.
If you are sacked they need a reason, ie misconduct and they have to follow procedures to do so. If you are made redundant (cause they don't need you) then there are restrictions on how soon they can hire someone for the same position etc.

Steven.
Jan 30 2012 23:42
jef costello wrote:
Just a quick point, the CNE predated the CPE and was defeated legally at least two years later (although very few employers had issued contracts under it, probably expecting them to be invalidated) and was annuled as a law in 2008.

that's really interesting, I had no idea! We should probably update the CPE history articles… Any good links to articles about its death?

Juan Conatz wrote:
For someone who isn't European, what exactly is the protection? Here in the States, everything that's isn't under a union contract is 'at-will' employment. Which means you can be fired for pretty much any reason (except for being apart of a protected class or concerted activity).

yeah, I only found that out recently. That's a pretty terrifying concept.

Basically, the law is that if you have been in a job for more than one year (directly employed, not to an agency), you can only be sacked for one of the following reasons:
- capability: you are no longer capable of doing the job for skill or sickness reasons
- conduct: if you commit an act of gross misconduct/negligence
- redundancy: there is a reorganisation at work where some posts are no longer required, although selection has to be "fair"
- complying with the legal duty: i.e. if someone doesn't have the right immigration paperwork
- some other substantial reason: this could be something like employees refusing to sign a new contract.

Now, how much protection this actually gives you depends on your circumstances and your employer. If you work for a large employer, and lots of people do the same job as you, then it means you could have quite a lot of protection. This is lucky for me, as I'm in this situation, and I am disabled so I really need to be able to hide in a big group to keep my job.

If you are the only person doing your job (or a job on your grade) then it would be pretty easy for an employer to get rid of you as they could just say they need to do a reorganisation where they delete your post and therefore make you redundant.

Alasdair wrote:
So, practically, what ideas does anyone have to do anything about this?

The national campaign against fees and cuts passed policy this weekend at its conference to coordinate national action on this, but I'm frankly sceptical that much will come of that (particularly as their committee has now become split between several different trot groups and has agreed a lot of campaigns at once).

Is anyone else organising anything in relation to these changes?

I'm not aware of anyone doing anything about this.

Practically, what can we do about it? Really, I don't know. The only thing that could stop it would be a mass wave of social unrest, but TBH I don't see that happening, so I'm not sure there is much we can do apart from inform people. And where we do work try to build our solidarity on the ground to defend colleagues in their first two years…

jef costello
Jan 31 2012 07:03
Steven. wrote:
that's really interesting, I had no idea! We should probably update the CPE history articles… Any good links to articles about its death?

http://libcom.org/blog/jef-costello/france-employment-law-ruled-be-breach-international-law-07072007
Although it turns out there were many more contracts than I remembered (360-400k)

Steven.
Mar 13 2012 19:06

So, today's the day: it's now been officially decided. 2.7 million people will lose protection from unfair dismissal. 1.4 million part-time women, 61% are young people and 32% from black and minority ethnic groups. Crap.