The covid-19 crisis has highlighted not only the importance of strengthening rights in the workplace, but also the sorry state of employment rights in the UK before the global pandemic. That’s why it’s astonishing that a Government which claims to want to ‘build back better’ is now floating further attacks on working hours and sick pay, and has remained silent on banning the reprehensible fire and rehire tactics of companies like British Gas and British Airways.

Throughout the public health crisis, we’ve heard stories of companies refusing to allow workers who could work from home to do so, and of badly implemented health and safety measures in workplaces. Part of that is about poorly worded and communicated government advice, which allows bad employers to take advantage.

The advice is also outdated – as the TUC has outlined, the government guidance hasn’t been updated since the national lockdown last March, despite the fact we now know much more about the virus and there are now new variants that are far more transmissible. We need much tougher, clearer guidelines on social distancing and other restrictions in workplaces.

But it’s also about the lack of resourcing to enforce basic health and safety rules. The Health and Safety Executive has faced huge cuts over the previous decade. In 2009-2010, the HSE received £231m from Government. Last year is was £123m. That’s a cut of just under £100m in a decade. Now, with an estimated 390 full time equivalent inspectors for the whole of the UK, there isn’t enough capacity to ensure that every workplace is properly inspected.

Every worker should have the right to work in a safe environment. Even if there are formal guidelines in place, they mean nothing if no one is available to see they’re being followed. In fact, the current crisis has demonstrated the importance of our trade unions for ensuring our safety at work, pressing employers for comprehensive risk assessments, especially given the new coronavirus strains.

The fire and rehire tactics used by employers such as British Gas and British Airways have also shown us how unbalanced the relationship between workers and employers is. The aggressive attacks on pay and conditions we’ve seen from these employers during this unprecedented twin economic and public health crises is unacceptable – but the option of issuing a s.188 notice has always been available to bad bosses. It’s way past time fire and rehire was banned.

Poor health and safety enforcement and the aggressive attacks on workers’ pay and conditions are two ways in which the public health crisis has demonstrated our rights at work need strengthening. It’s also in the public health interest. If workers don’t have the confidence to push back against bad employers, and companies know there’s little chance of being inspected, no wonder we’re seeing coronavirus rules being bent or even ignored.

The lesson of the past year is that strengthening employment rights is good for us all. It’s therefore shocking to hear reports that the Government are planning to erode them even further. The measures they wish to take include ending the 48-hour working week and removing rest break and holiday pay entitlements.

Rather than forcing down holiday pay and making us work longer and harder, the pandemic has shown we need to extend workers’ rights and give more support to trade unions negotiating with employers. That’s how we’ll build a fairer, more just economy coming out of this crisis.   

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