Claudia sits in the sunshine after work. Sitting in jean shorts and covered in freckles, she doesn’t look much past her teens, but she’s been working as a cleaner at St Georges University for over a year. Her cleaning company Ocean recently told her she’d be doing the same job on fewer hours, cutting her wages with just a few weeks notice and laying several people off. If the government goes ahead with new proposals to change employment rights, things are going to get a whole lot harder.
“I don’t really know how the process works,” Claudia smiles shyly, “No one ever told me I had rights.”
Claudia hasn’t heard of the government’s Beecroft report, but you can bet her employers have. The venture capitalist and Tory donor’s fifteen-page report calls on the government to rip up historic protections for British workers. The most controversial proposal gives bosses the power to be able to fire “without giving a reason”. But that's not the only joy. The report also wants to cut the amount of notice a company has to give before laying off large numbers of staff by two thirds, and scrap equal rights for agency workers working over twelve weeks. Staff could also face new unaffordable fees for employment tribunals.
The entire report says more about power than it does about economics. If this was just about improving labour market flexibility, we’d be having a conversation about how to remove people who are incompetent from the top as well as the bottom. But it will always be people like Claudia with fewer qualifications, less literacy, worse resources and lower political clout that take the hit. The financial crisis might have been caused by people with power, but very few faced dismissal as a result. Beecroft will never know what it feels like to fall to the very bottom, and a worker like Claudia will never know what it’s like to influence employment law.
“It seems that day by day the law is furthering rich people,” says Alberto Durango, a cleaner from the IWW union who is helping organise the cleaners in St Georges, “We are like products for a company trying to reduce costs. They are firing people and reducing the conditions of people who have been working for them for years and years… with no unfair dismissal that would be much easier.”
Nor does Beecroft’s report seem to be based on evidence. It’s a struggle to find any facts or figures in the unreferenced document, which often seems to speak more from prejudice than intelligence. Certainly when I talk to the small businesses in my ward, I have never heard the inability to fire people raised as a problem. The complaint is not that there are too many staff serving, but that there are too few customers in the shop buying. The deputy prime minister says that Britain already has one of the most flexible labour markets in Europe. Take away job security at a time like this, and people are likely to cut back spending even more.
The left needs to tell a different economic story. To do that honestly, we must look at long-term reform as well as short term spending. Some of Beecroft’s proposals make sense – asking workers to make an affordable contribution to employment tribunals, taking serious action to help both sides resolve disputes faster with time limits – but we need alternative proposals too. Germany might offer some inspiration. There, greater engagement with workers helped negotiate shared hours down with far fewer redundancies. Worker representation on the boards of companies helps hold bosses to account as well as employees. The Rhineland could teach us more about the kind of capitalism we want than the USA.
Right now the left isn’t taking Beecroft's report too seriously because the Lib Dems don’t support it and it wasn’t in the Coalition agreement. But the pressure to implement this reform will grow. Tory backbenchers and party funders are desperate for growth, and as long as they’re not prepared to invest their way out of the recession, this is the only option they can see - even if it doesn’t have an evidence base. The worse the economy does, the louder the clamour will get. For the sake of economics as well as the livelihoods of people like Claudia, the left should be ready to take on the fight.