May Day: pagan rites and employment rights

Blog posts

1 May 2015

Andrea Broughton

Andrea Broughton

In the UK the 1st of May, May Day, is associated in most people's minds with dancing, flowers and bonnets. However for many across the world it is more widely recognised as International Workers' day, a day to celebrate the labour movement and the development of work and employment rights.

So it seems timely to leave the Morris Dancing aside for a moment and take a brief look at trends in employment rights in the UK and more widely in Europe.

The recession of the past few years has hit the European economy badly and has made a severe dent on employment levels and in particular accentuated the development of a two-tier labour market, with high pay and secure employment for some and low pay and insecurity for others. Young people in particular are having significant difficulties in entering the labour market and the jobs that they can access often do not come with many employment rights: young people tend to be over-represented in jobs that are temporary, insecure and sometimes unpaid or paid at a very low rate. As a result, young people often do not have access to the levels of employment protection enjoyed by their older counterparts.

In recent months, there has been much discussion of zero hours contracts in the UK, a growing feature of both the youth and adult labour markets. Often found in retailing, catering, tourism and other sectors where consumer demand fluctuates, such contracts do not guarantee minimum hours of work; the worker can be called on at short notice to work and may be obliged to accept the hours offered and also agree not to work for anyone else (so-called ‘exclusivity’). Individuals are often hired as workers rather than employees and therefore do not enjoy a range of employment rights such as sick pay. While zero hours contracts are seen as delivering vital flexibility to employers – and also to employees in some measure – there are concerns that workers have almost no rights in terms of guaranteed hours and pay, and therefore lack stability and security. According to the Office for National Statistics, only around two per cent of the workforce are employed on zero hours contracts for their main job but the numbers are growing. The Fourth Work-Life Balance Employer Survey, published by BIS in December 2014 and jointly researched by IES, found that just under a fifth of establishments (17 per cent) in the UK had at least one employee who works on a zero hours contract. It’s a live political issue. In their election manifestos, nearly all the parties are committed to banning ‘exclusivity’ while the Labour Party has said that it would give workers on zero hours contracts the right to a standard contract of employment once they have worked regular hours for 12 weeks.

The turbulent economic situation of recent years has also resulted in a significant level of organisational restructuring which can also affect employees’ rights. The European Commission is keen that restructuring is carried out in a socially responsible way, which includes information and consultation of the workforce, retraining and redeployment of workers, and offering support to workers in the search for a new job. On 10 April 2015, it launched a consultation with the EU-level social partners on strengthening the coherence and effectiveness of the existing EU legislation on worker information and consultation at national level. The focus is on three specific Directives: on collective redundancies, transfers of undertakings and a general framework for information and consultation of workers. This follows a recent ‘fitness test’ exercise of these three Directives, in order to determine whether they were relevant, effective, coherent and efficient. The findings of this exercise were broadly positive, but a number of gaps and shortcomings in the legislation were identified and the Commission is now consulting on the way forward. In the UK, this could ultimately lead to changes in workers’ rights to information and consultation in situations such as collective redundancies, transfers of undertakings and other restructuring events likely to have an impact on workers.

Employment rights are also potentially under threat in situations where workers move to another EU Member State to work. The EU Posted Workers Directive aims to ensure that workers posted from one EU Member State to another enjoy a minimum level of employment rights that are applicable to workers in the host country. However, this is a contentious area and in the UK there have been instances of workers from other countries being sent to the UK and working under sub-standard employment conditions. Sectors where workers move around as a matter of course, such as the international road haulage sector, present problems in terms of maintaining employment conditions of workers moving from Member States with lower rates of pay and terms and conditions to those with higher levels of pay and conditions. Complex subcontracting chains have sprung up in this sector, aimed at circumventing legislative requirements.

So although employment rights have become firmly established since the first International Workers’ Day some 130 years ago, it is still an active area of employment policy interest and likely to remain so in the UK after the election.

Meanwhile, whatever its heritage May Day gives us a chance for some fun, now where is my bonnet?