Yesterday the government announced its plans to cut the minimum period for employers consulting their employees before making large scale redundancies from 90 days to 45 days. It's already easier to cut jobs in the UK than in many other countries, but the Tories and Lib Dems want to make it easier still.
The 90 day period only applies where an employer plans to dismiss 100 or more staff through redundancy in one establishment, so this change only affects bigger employers.
I was pleased to see that UNITE promptly put out a press release attacking the move. This is an issue we should take into the workplaces too. Many employees, whether union members or not, know from bitter experience how important the consultation period is for protecting jobs. We need to mobilise them against this threat.
The consultation period is supposed to allow employees, usually through their unions, to get information from the employer and put forward ideas for avoiding the redundancies, reducing the numbers of redundancies, and mitigating the consequences of the redundancies if they go ahead. This process often does save jobs. Cutting the time available means fewer jobs will be saved.
The consultation period is also useful for individuals. It gives them time to consider their options, to seek redeployment within the company and to look for work outside. In my own workplace we have negotiated time periods better than the existing legal minimum and this has been a major factor in securing redeployment within the company for many staff. Shorter consultation periods mean fewer redeployments, more lives wrecked and employers wasting more money making staff redundant and then hiring new ones.
There's another factor in this which unions need to take very seriously indeed. The change would, when combined with the anti-union laws, make it extremely difficult for members to take lawful industrial action in defence of jobs. The anti-union laws require the union to provide the employer with an accurate breakdown of the numbers and categories of members to be balloted 7 days before a ballot opens. Preparing this can take weeks. Ballots rarely run for less than two weeks, after which the union has to give another 7 days notice to the employer before lawful industrial action can begin. So even if the union is perfectly prepared and can issue the notice of ballot instantly, without any checking of membership records (pigs might fly) you still need a minimum of about 4 weeks before action can begin. If the government goes ahead with this I foresee more and more workers feeling that the anti-union laws give them no way of defending their jobs lawfully and deciding to take unofficial action instead.
I heard one government spokes-idiot referring to the proposed change as getting a better balance between employers and workers. The employer-employee relationship is an inherently unequal one and rarely more so than in a redundancy situation. Can workers decide to make their bosses redundant? Yet the Tories and Liberal Democrats obviously think that the feeble employment protection workers currently enjoy gives workers too much power in the relationship and it needs to be reduced! Is it too much to ask that Labour's front bench vigorously oppose this?
The proposals are fully in tune with the overall government approach, which sees working tax credits and other benefits being cut for the poorest, while corporation tax is cut for their city mates.