No more delay: We need an Employment Bill fit for the COVID-era
The long-awaited Employment Bill was notable by its absence in this week’s Queen’s Speech, which sets out the UK Government’s legislative programme for the year ahead.
This omission has provoked dismay and concern among many employer and worker representative bodies, charities and employment experts. We share this concern. Access to decent jobs is a critical component of individual, community and societal wellbeing. Even before the onset of the pandemic, many people’s experience of work had not been good, with persistent inequalities of opportunity; low and stagnant pay; lack of worker voice; and a growth in insecure forms of work all salient features of the UK’s labour market.
What is the Employment Bill?
The UK Government’s intention to bring forward an Employment Bill was introduced in the Queen’s Speech of December 2019. The Employment Bill was set to include a range of important measures with the potential to improve working lives for many:
‘The purpose of the proposed Bill is to:
- Protect and enhance workers’ rights as the UK leaves the EU, making Britain the best place in the world to work
- Promote fairness in the workplace, striking the right balance between the flexibility that the economy needs and the security that workers deserve.
- Strengthen workers’ ability to get redress for poor treatment by creating a new, single enforcement body.
- Offer protections for workers by prioritising fairness in the workplaces, and introducing better support for working families.
- Build on existing employment law with measures that protect those in low paid work and the gig economy.’
There was no movement on the Bill in 2020. Delay may be understandable, given the immense task facing government in managing the public health crisis and steering the economy through a year of unprecedented restrictions. But there have been growing concerns about whether the ‘ deafening silence’ from Ministers on the Bill signifies an ‘unmistakable deceleration of the government reform agenda in relation to good work’ — as the former Director of Labour Market Enforcement Matthew Taylor put it.
An Employment Bill to build back fairer
A single-minded focus on preventing unemployment from spiralling was of critical importance in the early phases of the COVID-19 crisis. Unemployment is hugely damaging to wellbeing, scarring people and communities. But we cannot ‘build back fairer’ — the language of this week’s Queen’s Speech — without reducing the insecurity and exploitation experienced by many workers. An effective Employment Bill could play a vital role in doing this by introducing new employment protections.
The UK Government needs to seize the opportunity that the Employment Bill would present as a critical component of building back fairer. The labour market’s recovery from COVID must avoid the mistakes of 2008 recession, which saw too many people trapped in low-paid, insecure work and feeling ‘left behind.’ During the pandemic, low-paid, precariously employed and many self-employed workers have been more likely to have furloughed, or to have lost work or income than to have been able to work from home. Low levels of financial security and employment protections have weakened the ability for many people in low-paid, precarious or gig employment to stop working and self-isolate as part of the public health response to COVID outbreaks. The cruel choice facing these individuals — between maintaining their health or income — has also undermined our collective ability to control the spread of the virus. It cannot be right that so many key workers, providing essential care or services to keep the country functioning during the pandemic, are precariously employed. Social care workers are four times more likely than average to be employed on a zero-hours contracts.
As the Director of Labour Market Enforcement flagged last year, increased unemployment and difficult business trading conditions pose additional risks of worker exploitation. Workers are less likely to feel able challenge their employer due to the need for income and lack of alternative employment options. While unscrupulous businesses may be more tempted to circumvent the rules if under pressure to sustain their operations.
Making the Employment Bill fit for the COVID-era
Alongside the need to address poor working conditions, the Bill also has an opportunity to shape a new settlement around flexible working. Delivered correctly, new flexible working rights and responsibilities could support worker wellbeing, productivity, and could aid the achievement of the UK Government’s ambitions for a fairer distribution of job opportunities across the country, rejuvenated local high streets, and a reduction in carbon emissions.
Legislation to support a fairer balance between ‘the flexibility that the economy needs, and the security that workers deserve’, is needed now more than ever. Now is not the time to keep the Employment Bill on ice.
In response to criticism about the delay, a spokesperson has said the UK Government it is still committed to bringing forward an employment Bill ‘when the time is right,’ citing the pandemic as the reason for the delay.
We can understand if the UK Government wishes to reassess the potential implications of the proposed clauses in the Bill in light of the changes wrought on the labour market by the pandemic.
Many of the organisations who have spoken out against the Bill’s delay this week — including the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, TUC, Recruitment and Employment Confederation, Living Wage Foundation, and Institute of Employment Studies — have considerable evidence and expertise at their disposal to aid government in the task of understanding the pandemic impacts and identifying the labour market responses that are required.
At the Carnegie UK Trust, we too would be pleased to share the insights from our research into the impacts of coronavirus on workers’ job quality and the negative impact of precarious work on mental health.
We urge the UK Government to set out the next stages of preparing the Bill to be brought forward: for example, through committing to new public and stakeholder consultation to share their thinking and gather the best available evidence to assess the Bill’s potential applications in the post-COVID economy.