I’m tempted to start up a betting pool for what stereotypical right-wing area the Government is going to look at reforming next. Reports have emerged that the Cabinet is going to look to back workers’ rights, which, along with the EU and tax cuts, is one of the three pillars that seem to cause irrational frothing around the mouth of a certain type of Tory.
The likelihood that the government is able to actually go through with plans that will strip back workers’ rights is quite small. The11 MP’s that rebelled over the Grieve Amendment are also the same group of Tories who are likely to rebel over issues like this, coming as they do from the moderate end of the party. A small, but focused rebellion from the Tories and the almost guaranteed opposition from labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems means that the Government would almost certainly be defeated if it were to progress with this part of the right-wing agenda.
It would be easy then for us to just chalk this up as a potential opportunity to defeat the Government and show once again that the Tories are out of touch with the rest of Britain. Labour and the left shouldn’t rest on its laurels though. In some ways, the almost Pavlovian response the Right has to try to mess around with workers’ rights when in power provides the left with an opportunity to expand the discussion on workers’ rights further.
The left has found a lot of time to discuss and delve into issues such as the gig economy and the poor treatment that significant aspects of the workforce in that sector face, but there are a few other areas for workers of all sorts that could do with some focus and potentially some regulation to ensure that workers aren’t being exploited.
As technology progresses employees are increasingly finding themselves looking at work issues in their free time. It’s quite common for office-based workers to either have a work phone with their emails set up, or to have their work emails set up on their personal devices. This means that even in their free time they’re getting email alerts for work wherever they go. When an alert comes up, it’s almost second nature to check the email, assess what it is, and maybe even shoot off a quick reply. Whilst each individual email may not take up much time, over a year it’ll all add up, and it’s all time that people are working that they aren’t getting paid for.
France has taken a stab at solving this problem by instituting a “ Right to disconnect” and banning answering work emails post 6 pm. This is one of those areas where the French have probably got the rough outline of a good idea, but it’ll need tweaking to fit the British context. Adapting something like the working time directive to include the “right to disconnect” and setting out a legal requirement that workers do not HAVE to respond or deal with out of office emails should be an easy thing to do. It would also allow us to bring flexibility into the system. There are some individuals (and I can include myself in this), who would happily opt out of such a right ( I get bored easily at times and work will quite often be something I can sink my teeth into that kills time and is also productive).
Combining the right to disconnect with a stronger requirement to allow office workers to work from home, making flexi-time a mandatory thing for companies to offer their employees could form the basis of a strong offering for professional workers, helping keep an essential part of the Labour electoral coalition in place.
Such an offering would only really work for professionals though, so it would need to offer a comprehensive package which was able to resolve many of the issues for the rest of the workforce, but put together you could see the start of a reform package that would be easily deliverable, and be the part of a strong message that would differentiate Labour from the Tories very effectively, provided Labour want to make it a priority.