First, there were the proposals put forward by Conservative Party supporting venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft suggesting it be made easier to sack people. He also called for a watering down of the TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) regulations that enable employees to take their existing terms of employment over to a new employer when work is transferred.
The suggestions in the Beecroft report brought a rebuttal from the Liberal Democrat business secretary Vince Cable. Some name calling then followed with Cable being labeled “a socialist” by Beecroft, something that probably did him no harm with his own party, which grows increasingly uneasy in Coalition with the Conservatives.
Yet Beecroft was really only the latest audacious bid by business to make the best out of a good crisis. Ever since the Coalition Government came to power the Confederation of British Industry has been lobbying away to get workers’ rights reduced. And they have been successful.
Cable’s department has already overseen the extension of the period required before a worker can go to tribunal over unfair dismissal from one year to two years. Prohibitive fees are also to be charged to further dissuade workers going to tribunal.
Employment minister Chris Grayling has been overseeing a cutting of health and safety laws. This again is justified on the need to become more competitive. If a bad employer is able to put a worker’s life at risk without fear of punishment then he or she will take more risks and can employ more workers.
On the streets, there have been ample examples of this regressive approach in action. There was the use of work experience to effectively provide retailers with free labour at the tax payers’ expense. This involved individuals on benefits doing work experience with the likes of Tesco. If they pulled out then benefits would be cut. This policy quickly unraveled when the companies taking part, notably Tesco, began to withdraw. It was not good corporate profile in this day and age to be using, as it was portrayed by campaigners, slave labour.
Then came the Diamond Jubilee celebrations when a private company working for government brought in jobseekers to work unpaid as stewards. The line being pushed here – which has plenty of resonation in the Beecroft report – that workers should be grateful to work at all, being paid being increasingly seen as a bonus, not a right.
Incidentally, at time of such austerity, why did no one seem to question the wisdom of spending £3 billion on the Jubilee celebrations?
The attack on working people continues apace, with the public sector singled out for particular attention. Supported by its legion of right wing friends in the media the government is able to attack the basic rights of working people from doctors to teachers and police. The work that these people do comes under scrutiny in a way never evident when the subject of bankers enters the lexicon.
The unrelenting narrative, seen most recently when doctors took the decision to strike over their pensions, is that of the race to the bottom. So it is not a case of looking at the terms and conditions of public sector workers and saying all workers should be brought up to these levels but of dragging those on better deals down to the worst on the street. This is not the way forward.
The argument being put forward to further restructure capitalism so that the workers can do even longer for less is that of competitiveness. The labour market must be more flexible, so employers can sack and generally exploit workers more easily.
A look at the situation in Germany, where workers have greater protection and the market is far more regulated, tends to shatter this illusion. Germany has far higher productivity levels than the UK. There is no evidence that suggests making it easier to sack people will create jobs. Indeed, even the sacred small businessman so often quoted as the saviour of the British economy says that employment protection makes no difference; it is the refusal of the banks to lend to them that is really holding back growth.
Given the onslaught it has been good to see the TUC’s launch its Employee Rights Stop Employment Wrongs. This campaign draws attention to the efforts of the government to turn back the clock on employment rights. It provides a rallying point for a fight back that will culminate in a rally in the autumn against the government’s approach. It must also be hoped that the Labour Party's policy review picks up on some of the TUC's ideas for an alternative more just way to build the economy in the future.