Employee ownership organisation rejects "employee-owner" plans

"There is no need to dilute the rights of workers in order to grow employee ownership."

The Employee Ownership Organisation, which represents employee-owned businesses "contributing some £30bn to the UK economy each year", has written an open letter to Jo Swinson, the incoming Minister for Employment Relations, Consumer and Postal Affairs, about the government's plans to introduce a new "employee-owner" status for workers in some businesses. 

Earlier this month, I referred to the plans as "Beecroft through the back-door", and in the intervening time, the actual proposals haven't got any better, while the execution of them has been even worse than expected. The first reading of the bill to introduce the new status happened on the very same day that a consultation into its implementation was launched. Today is the second reading of that bill, while the consultation doesn't even close until 8 November.

No wonder, then, that the EOO is concerned that the measures may tarnish the entire concept of employee ownership. The EOO's Chief Executive, Iain Hasdell, writes in his letter to Swinson that members of his organisation have three concerns:

Firstly, proposed legislation has appeared in a Bill before the Government consultation on the possibility of deploying this model of employee ownership has finished. Indeed it has only just started. Secondly, our Members are very aware that there is no need to dilute the rights of workers in order to grow employee ownership and no data to suggest that doing so would significantly boost the number of employee owners. Indeed all of the evidence is that employee ownership in the UK is growing and the businesses concerned thriving, because they enhance not dilute the working conditions and entitlements of employee owners. Thirdly, the appearance of this measure in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill appears to our Members to be completely disconnected to the recommendations in the Nuttall Review. That Review, as you know, contained a series of recommendations on how to grow employee ownership and none of those recommendations suggested the dilution of worker rights.

If it wasn't clear enough that these measures are a proposal aimed at reducing rather than increasing employees' rights in the workplace, the fact that the  very organisations they are named after are rejecting them ought to be a strong indicator.

Waitrose and John Lewis, Britain's best known employee-owned organisations. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.