Posts Tagged ‘workers’ rights’

Small taste of injustice.

January 26, 2010

I recently finished a stint of temporary employment with a fairly prominent environmental organisation that enjoys charitable status. Along with around 25 other people, I was helping on a project for the organisation that required working outside nearly all of the day. We signed contracts promising us “continuous employment” during the project dates. All seemed well and good.

However, the snow and ice that descended upon Britain earlier this month meant that we weren’t allowed out to work because of the ‘ealth’n’safety. My colleagues and I only had this confirmed to us by text message on the snowy mornings – usually less than an hour before we were supposed to start the day’s work.

This was frustrating enough. What was even more annoying was then being told that we weren’t going to be paid for those days. Through no fault of our own, we were losing pay. The workers were expected to take the brunt of the costs incurred by the snow days in order to save the bosses in their offices some money.

I was in a fortunate situation because I had another job to go to. Many of my colleagues, however, suffered agonising stress as they realised they would have difficulty paying their bills after losing around five days’ worth of pay. Some of these people had been loyal employees of the organisation for years but were being treated very poorly.

The nature of the work means that noone had joined an appropriate union for protection. A letter of protest was written and signed by just about everyone on the team. Even though it seems as if the organisation has broken its obligations under the contract to provide “continuous work” to the project staff, we are in a weak position and can only hope for a sudden sense of generosity on the part of those managing the project.

Most of the project team were middle-class and in little danger of imminent starvation. But it was depressing to witness a charity treating its workers so abysmally. Readers will be kept updated of any developments in this heroic wage struggle!


Just what the doctor ordered

May 14, 2009

I’m glad that, amid the clamour of the past month or so, a group of comrades has got it together to start the Wage Concern campaign, lobbying to have Tory MP Christopher Chope’s bill to destroy the minimum wage thrown out of the Commons when it is debated on Friday.

It appears to have some of the best usual suspects from Labour’s online presence behind it: Alex Hilton seems to be co-ordinating a large part of it, and born-again-blogger John Prescott is (of course) right where the action is. The facebook group already has nearly 4,000 members.

This is important, I think, for two reasons.

First, the national minimum wage is one of our greatest achievements in government. Millions of the worst off are its direct beneficiaries. It tells everyone exactly what a Labour government is meant to be about. Its defence should be an absolute concern for any good Labourite.

Secondly, it shows that – notwithstanding the bashing we’ve had over the past week/three weeks/three months/three years (delete depending on how many antidepressants you’ve started taking) – there are still good Labour causes worth fighting for, and good Labour people there to fight them.

It’s easy to lose track of what politics is meant to be about sometimes, especially when the narrative is all process driven. That’s not to say that the items of process being focussed on (expenses, Smeargate) aren’t important or serious or worthy of criticism; just that, fundamentally, we’re meant to “believe” in politicians not because of their personal morality, but because of their political principles and the policies they enact.

Anyway, don’t take my word for it – Stephen Fry agrees.

An Act of Nonsense

April 27, 2009

I subscribe to many views today considered ‘old fashioned’. One such view is that an Act of Parliament is designed so as to confer legally enforceable rights and obligations. Sadly, this view is now extremely out-dated. Recent years have seen a trend more towards using the statute book to extole the virtues of Mother Hubbard and apple pie. The panacea of this trend came with the now legendary National Health Service Act 2006. With no sense of irony, section 1(1) states:

1 Secretary of State’s duty to promote health service

(1) The Secretary of State must continue the promotion in England of a comprehensive health service designed to secure improvement—

(a) in the physical and mental health of the people of England, and

(b) in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of illness.

Not only would this use of ‘duty’ have Hohfeld spinning in his grave, it fundamentally undermines the Act. No person can sensibly ever bring a claim against the Secretary of State for breaching this duty and so the section serves no purpose other than amusing law students.

Keep watching the skies, however, because I am confident that the standard set by the National Health Service Act could be surpassed. The latest announcement from Minister for Mother Hubbard and Apple Pie, Harriet Harman has almost unprecedented nonsense-potential. Despite this Act being just the latest in a long line of Equalities legislation, Labour’s future leader (surely not!) promises that the bill would  “narrow the gap between rich and poor and make Britain more equal”. Never one to duck an opportunity for hyperbole then! I have all fingers crossed that this will be imposed as a duty on a Secretary of State in section 1 of the bill.

Next we are told that the bill will aim to eradicate ‘unfairness’ in the workplace. If this is made into an enforceable ‘duty’ the opportunities for comedy litigation could be limitless. No longer will litigants be forced to struggle with the metaphysical and moral dilemma of how to sue God. Under the new Act we could bring a claim against our employers for all our misfortunes.

Saving the best til last, the bill aims to tackle discrimination against people from working class backgrounds. I am overcome with excitement at the prospect of seeing a legal definition of a working class person. I desperately hope the bill contains a Schedule listing key defining characteristics of a working class person. Perhaps we at the Paintbrush could compile a list for Ms Harman to include.


Agency work to go at Mini-plant

February 16, 2009

Apparently BMW-Mini are to make 850 workers redundant at their plant in Cowley, Oxford – and the workers bearing the brunt of the layoffs will be agency workers.

Of course, it’s better to have a changed shift pattern, lower production and some redundancies now than for production to carry on and the firm to go bust within the year. Every job loss is tragic, but some are sometimes justifiable if it means keeping a firm going and not having widespread capital scrapping and huge unemployment when firms gog under after desparately trying to carry on regardless in a recession. This isn’t necessarily the firm’s fault.

What I can’t condone, however, is the increasingly arbitrary distinction between permanent and agency workers. In the BBC report linked to above, one agency worker says that he has worked at the plant for three and a half years, working side-by-side with permanent employees. And yet, when it comes to lay-off time, they are the first out.

What this has led to is an increase in the size of the temporary and agency work force – because firms can treat these workers differently, and they have fewer rights than permanent staff, thousands of workers are being denied the security of permanent contracts because firms prefer the “flexibility” of being able to deny their workers the full range of rights to which a permanent staff member is entitled by law.

We could argue around the houses for ages as to whether the firm can be morally judged for this – they would argue that it is within their legal rights (which it is), while the workers and their supporters would argue that their legal rights do not necessarily contain their more nebulous moral obligations in their entirety (or something like that).

There is a wider discussion to be had about whether something legal can be immoral; however, when it comes to the economy, there is always an incentive for a firm to do the most they can within the law to maximize their profit. Otherwise, for all of their good intentions, they will see their profit eroded by less scrupulous competitors.

What this points to, clearly, is legislation to protect these workers – to ensure that all firms are on a level playing field when deciding how to treat their workers. Deciding how to treat workers on the basis of their worth, not on the technicalities of their contract, shouldn’t be at the mercy of competitive advantage.

Workers at the Cowley plant may be heartened to discover that the local MP, Andrew Smith (who gets the thumbs up from all at Paintbrush Towers), supported the Private Members Bill last year to provide extended rights for temporary and agency workers. We can only hope that, as the recession deepens, the government will look again at this issue.