During the Trades Union Congress (TUC) conference in early September 2019, the Labour Party announced plans for a new Workers' Protection Agency and Ministry for Employment Rights. In particular, Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn promised the "biggest ever" extension of employment rights in the United Kingdom, designed to "put power in the hands of workers".
In an announcement on 10 September 2019, the Labour Party said it would create a new Ministry for Employment Rights overseen by a new secretary of state for employment rights. The ministry would spearhead an expansion of individual and collective employment rights and would:
be responsible for transforming our workplaces by delivering a huge rollout of individual and collective rights at work and implementing enforcement powers to make these rights meaningful.
The proposal echoes Labour's 2017 manifesto pledge to establish a ministry of labour. The responsibility for employment rights currently rests with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
A Labour government would also create a new Workers' Protection Agency to enforce employment laws and standards. This body would have "extensive powers to inspect workplaces" and litigate on workers' behalf. Employers found to have fallen foul of requirements would be subject to penalties.
Currently, most employment rights are enforced by individuals through employment tribunals. However, some government bodies already enforce employment rights, particularly for the most vulnerable workers. For example, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs enforces national minimum wage compliance, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority has certain powers to tackle worker exploitation and the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigates discriminatory practices.
Theresa May's government already acknowledged that the existing state enforcement landscape was fragmented. One of the flurry of consultations launched over Summer 2019 proposed the creation of a single enforcement body, which would take over the existing work of various agencies and get additional enforcement powers over holiday pay for vulnerable workers and umbrella companies operating in the agency worker market.
It is interesting that both the Labour Party and the Conservative administration have expressed a willingness to expand the state's ability to enforce employment rights. However, the Labour Party's proposed Workers' Protection Agency is likely to be more radical than that envisaged by the government's consultation, in that its remit is likely to be more far-reaching and its approach to enforcement could differ.
Labour's other proposals announced at the TUC conference echo some of its 2017 manifesto pledges and include:
- strengthening trade union rights and collective bargaining by rolling out sectoral collective bargaining and reforming trade union laws;
- expanding 'worker' status to everybody except genuinely self-employed persons;
- removing the ability for agency workers to be engaged on Swedish derogation contracts (this derogation is going to be removed on 6 April 2020 as part of the government's Good Work Plan (for further details please see "Good Work Plan – first steps down the path"));
- introducing a higher hourly national minimum wage of £10 by 2020 for all workers over the age of 16;
- introducing a civil enforcement mechanism to enforce gender pay auditing compliance (presumably a reference to the current gender pay gap reporting scheme); and
- abolishing zero-hours contracts and unpaid internships.
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