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Friday, 18 May, 2001, 14:11 GMT
Extending rights in the workplace

Labour has tried to maintain a balanced approach in the workplace, keeping much of Conservative union legislation but adding more benefits


BACKGROUND

In the run up to the 1997 election, Labour went to considerable lengths to reassure voters that there would not be a return to the 1960s and 1970s, when the big unions regularly brought the country to a standstill.

Like the Tories, Labour is committed to a flexible labour market and it has done little to reverse Tory anti-union legislation, such as compulsory postal ballots and the ban on secondary picketing.

In power, Labour has kept the unions at arms length, preferring instead to pursue its own "fairness at work" agenda through a series of new employment laws.

It has also introduced a series of "family friendly" measures in an attempt to make life easier for working parents.

And it has signed up to the EU's Social Chapter, a move long resisted by the Conservative Party.

The Tories had argued that this piece of European legislation, which seeks to guarantee basic minimum employment standards, would harm Britain's competitiveness.

But arguably the most significant change introduced by Labour has been the minimum wage.


MINIMUM WAGE

The minimum wage, which guarantees a basic level of income, is seen as being central to Labour's economic philosophy - that social justice and growth can go hand in hand.

The Conservatives were vehemently opposed to the minimum wage before the 1997 general election, but they have since dropped their opposition to it, after their warnings of large-scale job losses proved groundless.

At an initial rate of 3.60 an hour, the minimum wage was low enough to have little real impact on employers.

It went up to 3.70 in October 2000, following a review by the Low Pay Commission, and it is set to go up again in October 2001, to 4.10.

Labour has said it will raise the minimum wage to 4.20 by the following year - a key pledge in their manifesto.

The unions want the minimum wage to be set at half the male average income and upgraded annually. This would currently put it at about 5.

They also want 18 to 21-year-olds, who currently get a reduced rate of 3.20 an hour, to receive the adult rate.

The Liberal Democrats are committed to reviewing the minimum wage annually and abolishing the lower rate.

But the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has warned that further increases could harm company profits and fuel unemployment.


UNION RECOGNITION

Successive Conservative governments sought to create a more flexible labour market and to curb the power of the trade unions.

As a result, Britain has one of the lightest regulatory regimes - and some of the toughest anti-union legislation - in the Western world.

It also has one of the lowest levels of industrial action in the EU.

In 1999, the number of working days lost through strikes in the UK was the second lowest since records began in 1891, and only slightly higher than the 1997 figure of 235,000, which was the lowest recorded total.

Labour, while keeping many of the limitations on union strike action, pledged to give a statutory right of union recognition.

Under the Conservatives, many businesses stopped talking to unions, preferring instead to sign personal contracts with workers over pay and conditions.

Under new legislation, however, companies must recognise a union if more than 50% of the workforce are members, and if more than 40% of the workers in a particular department - or "bargaining unit" - vote in favour of the move. This may be reviewed by a future Labour government.

As a result, 159 new recognition deals covering 58,000 workers were struck in 2000, double the number in the previous year.

The government has also given all employees the right, whether they are in a union or not, to be accompanied by a union official in meetings with managers.

But the rise in union recognition has not been matched by an increase in union membership, which barely rose at all in 2000.

The Conservatives have pledged to repeal union recognition laws.


CONSULTATION

The Labour government's attempt to steer a middle way between business and the unions has not always been a smooth ride.

The ease with which multinational companies have been able to close factories and cut thousands of jobs when local market conditions turn against them, has left government and unions looking equally impotent.

The recent decision by steel giant Corus to cut 6,000 jobs, without consulting its workforce, offers a graphic illustration of this trend.

The unions have renewed calls for Labour to adopt a European directive on information and consultation, to give workers a greater say in the redundancy process.

The unions also want new legislation to increase the exit costs of businesses in the UK, which, they say, are the lowest in Europe.

In other words, the unions claim, it is cheaper and easier to make British workers redundant than anywhere else in the EU.

The Labour manifesto promises to review provisions on information and consultation which "needed to be appropriate to national traditions, with timely discussion of problems."

But the CBI says that any move to adopt the EU directive on workers consultation would be "a bridge too far."

The Liberal Democrats have said they will accept the EU directive on information and consultation.


WORKPLACE RIGHTS

Labour has presided over a number of important reforms in the workplace.

Signing up to the social chapter reinforced the rights of part-time workers, and there is likely to be more legislation to come.

In addition, the European working time directive, which was due to come into force whichever party was elected in 1997, has put a limit of 48 hours on the working week and guaranteed four weeks paid holiday a year.

Labour has also introduced new laws aimed specifically at working families, over and above any European legislation.

On coming to power, it increased maternity leave to 18 weeks and this will go up again in 2003 to 26 weeks.

Labour is also increasing the flat rate of statutory maternity pay from 60.20 to 100 a week, and has introduced the right to two weeks paternity leave, paid for by the government, at the same level as statutory maternity pay.

The Labour government has also ensured that part-time workers are treated no less favourably in their terms and conditions than their full-time colleagues.

However, proposals to give new mothers the right to return to work part-time and allow fathers with children under five to take extended leave periods have been put on the back burner in Labour's manifesto..

"We will work with business and employees to combine flexible working with the needs of business," it says.

Labour argues that family-friendly reforms will increase the flexibility of the labour market, ensuring that highly-trained workers are not lost to the economy when they decide to start a family.

The Conservatives would introduce family scholarships, which would help parents to re-train after taking a break to look after their children.

But the party has also accused Labour of tying business up in 'red tape', with its excessive employment legislation.

And the Liberal Democrats would ban age discrimination, giving everyone over the age of 60 the right to work subject to an annual assessment.

Tthe employers federation, the CBI, has called for a halt to new worker rights.

It claims many companies are already struggling to comply with the 16 different pieces of employment legislation introduced since 1997.

The cost to firms of new legislation has, it says, topped 12bn, made up largely of 7bn from the working time directive regulations and 4.5bn from the introduction of the minimum wage.

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