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The surreal world of Blairite workers’ ‘rights’… May 30, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

There’s has been an epochal shift in the balance between workers and capital. For we have reached “the end of the era”. This may come as a surprise to many, but the long struggle that was waged across centuries has come to an end. There is no need for any further changes, all is moving towards the sunny uplands of a utopia where worker and business can hand in hand skip merrily through…

No. No, wait, sorry, that’s all nonsense.

Because, twice this week it is necessary to comment on the vacuity of the Blairite project.

For in yesterday’s Guardian we learn that:

[the business secretary, John] Hutton provoked the ire of trade unions earlier today as challenged the “automatic assumption” that further legislation was the only way to deal with exploitation in the workplace.

Hutton told the Fabian Society in London: “In future, beyond minimum standards, we must place increasing emphasis on government creating the opportunity for workers and businesses to work out what is best for their own circumstances.”

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? That the workplace is in some sense an arena in which equals engage rather than top down hierarchies. That it is possible to easily ‘work out what is best for their own circumstances’.

Incidentally, considering the incredible Phil Collins statements about the Fabians, one can only wonder at the irony of the venue.

“Unity is an absolute precondition for progress and the prospect to serve our country for a fourth term in office,” Hutton said.

“But so too is a clear understanding of the fundamental cause we seek to promote and the best way now to translate Labour’s enduring values into the right policies for the future that can help our country prosper and thrive.”

And in an echo of an argument heard from the centre right for decades…

“Having a multiplicity of employment rights does not amount to a great deal if you can’t get a job in the first place,” said Hutton.

This is expanded upon as follows:

Hutton said the Labour government had reached “the end of the era” on considering major new regulations as the best way to improve standards.

Employment rights should both support market competition and ensure people have the right to work, echoing Labour’s twin themes of supporting wealth creation and promoting fairness, he added.

And he then continues…

“This has already has its basis in Labour’s groundbreaking ‘right to request’ legislation, which gives employees the right to ask, but also crucially ensuring businesses retain the right to say no if it’s not the best thing for business.”

Now, the ‘right to request’ is near risible (despite the fact that the TUC welcomed it originally claiming that in 90% of cases dealing with flexible working hours requests they were granted – a figure I’d like to see validated). I can request anything including the sun, moon and stars in my employments as it stands. But I won’t get them. And it is only through the codification and enforcement of rights… by… yes, that’s correct, the state – since that’s the only actor in all this with the power to enforce – that ‘rights’ mean anything at all. Indeed the process that is described on this useful site here (the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform “BERR’s central purpose is to help ensure business success in an increasingly competitive world. It is the voice for business across Government”… hmmmm) about the procedures are revealing:

Once the employer and the employee have discussed the request, the employer must notify the employee of the decision in writing.

If a request is rejected, the notification must:

State the business ground(s) for refusing the application

What is a business ground?

An application can be refused only where there is a clear business reason. The business ground(s) for refusing an application must be from one of those listed below.
Business grounds for refusing a request

Burden of additional costs.
Detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand.
Inability to reorganise work among existing staff.
Inability to recruit additional staff.
Detrimental impact on quality.
Detrimental impact on performance.
Insufficiency of work during the periods the employee proposes to work.
Planned structural changes.

Wouldn’t almost any such request fall afoul of ‘Burden of additional costs’?

And note how helpfully the BERR site assists those thrusting titans of the entrepreneurial sector…

How should the refusal be explained?

In addition to providing a specific business ground the employer must include an explanation about why the business ground applies in the circumstances. Experience shows that an employee who understands why a business reason is relevant will accept the outcome and be satisfied that their application has been considered seriously, even if they are disappointed that their application has been refused. It also shows that the reverse is true, particularly if the explanation is not sufficient for understanding.

The explanation should include the key facts about why the business ground applies. These should be accurate and clearly relevant to the business ground. To prevent any uncertainty, the explanation should avoid the use of unfamiliar jargon and should be written in plain English.

An explanation of around two paragraphs will usually be sufficient, although the actual length of explanation necessary to demonstrate why the business ground applies will differ depending on each individual case.

An example might be a manager in a small firm manufacturing curtains who receives a request from an employee to not work on Thursdays. The manager rejects the request, as the weekly fabric delivery is received on Thursday, and preparations begin for the following day’s despatch of customer orders. The explanation might say:

‘I am sorry that I cannot grant your request to change the days that you work, but to allow you to not work on a Thursday would have a detrimental effect on the performance of the business.’

Thursday is our busiest day of the week, when all staff are required to ensure that the machinists can continue making curtains while stock is received, and finished curtains are packaged ready to be despatched the following morning. You are aware that on a Thursday morning we receive our weekly delivery of fabric. This requires the involvement of all staff to help move the material from the delivery bay into the storeroom, before the newly made curtains can be prepared for despatch the following morning.’

As I indicated when we met to discuss the application, if you decide to change the day you would prefer not to work to one earlier in the week, then I would be happy to reconsider your application’.

Any facts quoted in the explanation must be accurate. It is not a necessity for the employer to provide the detail in the explanation, but they should ensure that they are able to back up any facts should they subsequently be disputed. A decision based on incorrect facts to reject an application would provide an employee with a basis to make a complaint to an employment tribunal.

It’s almost surreal. One can easily imagine the conversations in businesses that ensue. Not that the reality would be anything other than an employee knowing full well what sort of response might be forthcoming. One tends to pick up on that sort of thing… It really has to be one of the most dismal and cosmetic forays into the labour relations area ever. And this from a ‘Labour’ government?

Indeed for more on this there is an interesting essay here on the gender implications of the ‘right to request’ which notes that:

Given that so much more is needed, it may seem overly optimistic to see the rather weak right to request flexible working as a first step in a movement towards gender equality based on the universal care-giver/worker model.

‘Rather weak right’, well, that’s a kind way of putting it.

And what is most annoying is the way in which it typifies more Labour doublespeak on such matters because as ever they are attempting to talk one way and, very slightly, tilt another.

Or as the Guardian also notes:

His comments come just weeks after the government agreed to change the law to ensure agency workers’ rights kick in after three months, instead of a year – following intensive lobbying from trade unions.

Hutton promised new measures to protect vulnerable workers, pledging to remove legal barriers that hamper action against rogue employers. “This Labour government will always focus on those most in need,” he said.

So, some limited improvements in some areas. Some clear stasis in others, and yet again Labour is unwilling to actually sell a left project for fear of upsetting the middle classes.

End of an era he says? Too right.


1. ejh - May 30, 2008

Wouldn’t almost any such request fall afoul of ‘Burden of additional costs’?

I suspect indeed that the requirement to put the reply in writing would encounter the same objection.


2. WorldbyStorm - May 30, 2008

Yeah, quite seriously, it would.


3. Michael Taft - May 30, 2008

Labour’s programme flies in the face of management consultants’ reports and academic studies which call for a more advanced stage of co-operation and, dare I say, ‘partnershp’ in the workplace. Indeed, the Irish Government’s National Workplace Strategy would seem to go well beyond this ‘request denied’ practice. Of course, theory is one thing, the business of business is quite another.

The challenge for the Left and trade unions is to advance a workplace strategy premised on two things: first, an understanding that corporate assets are ultimately social assets, that the distinction between the public and private sectors is becoming ever more blurred in the real world, and that management and shareholders are just two elements in an ever widening constellation of stake-holders who all have legitimate claims on the use of those corporate-social assets.

Second, that a more egalitarian and participatory workplace is far more likely to be highly productive, highly motivated and highly successful. In other words, more dosh for workers, management, shareholders and Revenue (society).

We have an opportunity to turn the tables on the Right on this issue. If only we would get our hands a bit dirty talking about profit, market shares, enterprise expansion, export development, etc. Otherwise, the nonsense flowing from Mr. Hutton and IBEC and other such ilk will dominate the agenda and the Left will be forced into defensive positions that can easily be characterised as ‘anti-business’ and ‘anti-wealth generation’.

And by the way, an agency worker ‘requesting’ that she or he be treated equally with other permament co-workers by their employer (technically, the agency)? Pigs fly and legislation is long overdue.


4. Phil - May 30, 2008

I’d missed this one. I’m doing some research at work into the preconditions for regulation (i.e. non-conflictual behaviour modification) to be just and effective – this goes straight in the file. ‘Right to request’, indeed. (Although, contra ejh, I guess what this does say is that management will at least stir themselves to produce an answer in writing.)

My last boss but one would have loved this. I remember a coworker once requested him to let her take maternity leave and come back part-time; he explained to her at great length how the business couldn’t possibly have some people working a full week and others bobbing in and out as the fancy took them.


5. ejh - May 30, 2008

Isn’t all the profit made in the last hour of work anyway?


6. Rob - May 30, 2008

Personally, I can believe that the right to request flexible working time does result in it being granted. My labour law supervisor explained that usually when employers grant the right, they do it on the expectation that the employee will have to produce the same output in the limited working hours that they now do. In other words, employers often see flexible working time as a way of reducing wages paid whilst keeping productivity up and so are happy to grant it.


7. WorldbyStorm - May 30, 2008

Hmmm… not my experience of many companies. But I’m certain some do the right thing.

Phil, the funny thing there is how much down time there is at the highest levels of business, people on extended holidays (not least because they get better allowances) etc, etc.

Mick, further to your thoughts which I’d entirely agree with, I was at lunch today with a friend who with two others has a small business. Last year was the first year that they did more than break even sufficiently to give them any sort of a wage, and this year they gave themselves a small increase. He was fuming over Joe Higgins because J was arguing that after a decade of profits companies should award pay increases from retained profits. Difficult to explain to my friend that smaller enterprises are not in quite the same boat as larger more established ones. But also, perhaps, a gulf of incomprehension about how we as the left deal with business. What I’m certain of is that the scenario you describe where social is put above corporate is the way forward.


8. harpymarx - May 31, 2008

It is no real surprise what Hutton has been saying. I mean this is the man, when he was minister of the DWP, he kickstarted the marketisation of welfare, with the ideological focus on attacking the poor (“feckless poor”, “deserving/underserving poor” and “culture of dependency”).

Contracts worth millions and the private sector have their noses well and truly in the trough. Hutton brought in banker David Freud to devise ways of bringing in the private sector and further markertisation. And what Freud knows about welfare benefits is pretty much similar to what I know about banking! Hutton also went on a “fact finding” tour of the the States and Australia to envisage ways of bringing similar approaches to welfare to the UK.

And now Hutton wants to shaft workers’…


9. WorldbyStorm - May 31, 2008

harpymarx, did he actually use the term ‘feckless poor’? Says it all…


10. harpymarx - May 31, 2008

Yeah, I was at some TUC dayschool on welfare reform where someone mentioned that Hutton had supposedly used the term “feckless poor”. But it could be an urban myth but with Hutton’s political trajectory..I can believe he said it.


11. WorldbyStorm - May 31, 2008

And even if it wasn’t in those words… actions…


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