Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Thoughts on the #BMA16 plan for "two weeks self-cert".

Workers are well aware of the "self-cert" system when you are off sick.  It's supposed to be seven days, then you need a doctors note. In practice, it's often five days, and I've even seen some employers insist you go to the GP on day one of absence.

The BMA want this to be increased to two weeks.   They also say that GP's are spending 20% of time on non-medical work.

In a world of reasonable people, the government would want to listen.  Business would want to listen.

But no.

The government has already dismissed the idea.  This is despite the fact that the BMA has not even had the chance to raise the issue with them and present it's case.

I think this tells us a lot about the government.

But what about business?  The CBI have also dismissed the idea.

Neil Carberry, director of employment and skills at the CBI, said: “When someone is sick enough to be off work for a week, they should try to see a doctor. Self-certification is only appropriate for short-term absences, when a doctor’s visit may not be required.”

Has Neil tried to get into his GP surgery lately?  Perhaps he has.  Is this why he has carefully used the word "try" ?

After three days self-cert with a terrible throat (the type with horrible white spots!) you might ring the GP. Typically, the GP will say,  "These things often go away by themselves, and I'd rather that than prescribe anti-biotics.    If you are no better in a week, ring the surgery and we'll see you. If it gets worse in the meantime, ring us."

So that's ten days of absence before the GP will see you.   But the GP is still required to write a note for work after seven days.

There are two problems:

1.  Employers asking for the note earlier than seven days are placing unnecessary pressure on the GP, the worker, and the relationship between the GP and patient. This is a wholly avoidable cause of stress upon workers and GP's.  This could be resolved even if the period of self-cert isn't extended as suggested by the BMA.

2. Employers are bound to ask for a note after the self-cert expires, yet the GP may well not have wanted to see the worker yet.  It would be sensible to change that,

How is a GP supposed to assess "fit for work" for a patient they are not ready to see? Is this ethical?

In practice, a call to your surgery for a note for work does not get you an appointment. It may get you a "triage call back", or you may be told to come in to collect the note tomorrow.  Where the GP does the note the following day, it may not be back dated to when the request was made.  This can land workers on the wrong side of strict absence management policies, and often results in the worker making a further request for the surgery to correct it's note.

So let's go back to the words of Neil Carberry.  He is saying that self-cert is only appropriate when a GP visit is not required.  I agree with that.   However, I think Neil would really struggle if asked to justify his view that seven days self-cert is always adequate.

Clearly there is merit in the BMA plan. At the very least, I think workers should be able to extend the period of "self-cert" where they report that they have contacted the GP, but the GP has stipulated a time beyond seven days before they want to see them.

Perhaps the government and CBI could give listening a chance.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

The misery of "protected conversations" #ukemplaw

"Sign this settlement agreement, or you will be fired at your disciplinary hearing next week"

Workers faced with this pressure used to be able to complain to an employment tribunal.  The government decided to stop protection for workers in these situations, and in July 2013 introduced "protected conversations".

I believe the thinking behind this change was to bring about back door "Beecroft proposals" so as to enable no-fault dismissals.

Thankfully, solicitors for the employers have tended to advise caution, and the impact of "protected conversations" isn't as widespread as I feared.

But when I do come across it, I really feel for the worker concerned.

I've seen three this year.  Not many, perhaps, but for me that was three families too many thrown into unexpected turmoil and distress.

The last one was typical of all that I've seen.  The conversation went like this,

"'ve been implicated in an investigation.  Things aren't looking good for you.  I really like know I do....but I can't see any other outcome other than dismissal if this gets to a hearing. Look John, none of us want that....please take a look at this and take legal advice. "

The worker is then handed a lengthy settlement agreement, which includes a payment.  The payment varies.  The ones I've dealt with have mostly been for workers on average earnings, and the settlement agreements have tended to be for about five grand.

The family then has some horrible thinking to do.  What on earth could the disciplinary situation be? In the cases I've seen, the worker genuinely didn't know. In two of the cases I've seen this year, the worker had stress/mental health issues, and was unable to face the prospect of being the subject of a disciplinary investigation.

I am very sceptical that these workers genuinely had committed any misconduct. In the cases I've dealt with, the workers had absolutely no idea of what they'd supposed to have done.

A "protected conversation" leaves the worker in no doubt that the employer doesn't want them anymore. That hurts. A lot.

So yes, I can assure them of full support.  I can point out they can't be forced to accept the settlement agreement.  I can assure them that the union will fight any disciplinary proceedings as strongly as we can.

But in the cases I've dealt with.....leaving the company feels inevitable after the "protected conversation".  Who wants to work for a company that doesn't want you?

"Protected conversations" : not nice, and not necessary.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

My thoughts on "The great wages grab", and what should be done about it

It's scary but true - the amount of the UK's wealth that goes into wages is falling, and has been since the mid 1970's.  The problem is very real, and even right-wing commentators have expressed worry that this could "lead to capitalism's undoing".

During the same period, the decline is linked to a dramatic decline in collective bargaining coverage:

The "Gini" index refers to inequality.

These graphs are grim.  Deliberate attacks on collective bargaining have reduced the amount of wealth going into wages,enabled greater inequality, and enabled out of control executive pay.  And as the next graph shows, the top 0.1% do perversely well where collective bargaining is lower:

It’s VERY hard to get a union going. In order to have your Human Right to bargain collectively for pay and conditions, you have to go through loads of hoops, often in a stressful environment as the employer applies it’s pressure.  

How ridiculous it would be if other Human Rights, eg trial by jury, was something you only got if you were well informed enough to register to opt-in? 

It would be laughable to say “people should have the right NOT to want trial by jury” – or indeed to allow people to opt out of other Human Rights. The point about rights is that they are supposed to be universal. UK law makes it much much easier to opt out of union rights than it does to opt in.

The is no justification for the way UK employment law is structured. The default position is that there will be no union and no collective bargaining. What we have got is a statutory recognition procedure that sounds reasonable, but isn't. In practice, the odds are stacked against achieving collective bargaining.  

The law doesn't even guarantee union organisers reasonable access to the workers so they can make an informed choice.  Normally, a "recognition campaign" starts with leafleting outside the workplace gates.  Not a fair start...

When it comes to union recognition, both the union and the employer run a campaign. This process creates a range of emotions in workers, eg excitement, stress, pressure. The nastier the employers campaign, the more stressful it can be for people.

Why should a basic matter of Human Rights be forced upon people as a controversial choice they have to make? 

Our law is upside down. Here's how I think it should look:

All workplaces should automatically fall under a collective bargaining agreement, with Union recognition the automatic assumption.  A de-recognition procedure is not necessary. If workers don't want collective bargaining, the workplace union will either fail to submit a wage claim, or to do so would be pointless if the workers did not support it. The "right" not to have collective bargaining is nonsense and the idea deserves contempt.

Smaller workplaces could be serviced via pooling them together into local union branches. (Currently, our weak recognition laws do not even apply to "bargaining units" of less than 20 workers, although the issue can be forced by industrial action.)

As part of a new law, all workers would be automatically enrolled into the recognised union via salary checkoff (but given the right to leave.) 

What is astonishing is just how fantastic for Britain the effects of this would be:

* All working people would have a collective voice at work, with access to advice from day one of employment.

* Sexual Harassment would be greatly reduced.

* Wages would go up. This would help economic recovery and social justice far better than any living wage policy ever could.

* Sick pay would gradually improve, reducing the need for workers to get into trouble with loan sharks. This would relieve pressure upon families.

* Society would become fairer and more equal.

* The pressure upon families of insecure work would ease as jobs become more secure.

* Things would get much better for "non-core workers", such as guards, cooks, cleaners etc, most of whom are treated terribly.

As wages go up, so do tax receipts.

The national share of wealth earned by workers would start to increase, delivering fairness, delivering justice. We would be building a Britain to be proud of.  There would be a floor you cannot go below, but also a capped ceiling you cannot go above. Social cohesion, increased equality and a happier population would undoubtedly be the outcome.

What's not to like?  Without a dramatic shift in law and policy on Trade Unions, the problems will only get worse. Pro-union policy is the only way to deliver a fair share of wages, stability of employment, and an improved economic system that's less prone to the reckless behaviour of the few.

Further reading:

LSE on the reduction of GDP going into wages.

NEF - "UK paying price for decades of anti-union policy and law"

TUC - Report, "The Great Wages Grab"

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Workers being charged for PPE, "short shifting" and the rise of exploitation

The Clipper warehouse uses an Agency for the hiring and firing of warehouse operatives.

On day one, you *have* to pay £2 for your Hi-Viz.  But really you are only renting if for the time you are there.  Yes, you have to give it back to the Agency on your last day!   Employers are legally required to provide all PPE.  Unfortunately, this unlawful practice has become widespread, as employment agencies have realised this is something they can get away with.

Lots of dodgy Agency practices are going on, and who can stop them without a workplace union onsite?  We are even seeing workers being charged an an admin fee for getting paid.

The Amazon warehouse in Rugely does this thing called "Short Shifting".  That's when they text you to say what time they want you the following day.  So the worker sorts out child care / transport etc and turns up for work at the correct time.  Then they are told they are not needed, and are sent home without pay.  The worker is out of pocket for having turned up for work as requested. Workers who fail to turn up when asked are likely not to be asked back again.

Sickeningly, I am aware of a warehouse involving managers promising young women extensions to temporary contracts in return for sexual favours.  It was the warehouse HR manager who told me about that in confidence on the day of her resignation.  Her efforts to make management behave more reputably had not worked well.

Thanks to Unite, the shameful goings on at the Sports Direct warehouse have been well documented. But Sports Direct is not a one-off, far from it.

Wherever there is unchecked power, there is abuse.  And there is widespread abuse in non-union warehouses across the UK.

"Sack that fat b*****d by lunchtime, I don't like the way he walks", said the warehouse manager to the Team Leader.  The TL rang me in confidence - crying - unable to continue in this environment as what he was asked to do each day was sickening him.

There are quite a number of efficient warehouses, where workers at least have stable shifts.  But many are chaotic, with workers forever getting messed about.

It's the norm in unionised workplaces for reasonable notice of forced changes to your shift pattern. Between 14 and 28 days notice is typical.  But for workers in a non-union warehouse, notice may well be less than 24 hours. Obviously, this places terrible pressure upon families.

The employer has three choices.  They use an agency, or they follow the growing hoards of employers employing over 800,000 people on miserable zero hour contracts.

The third choice is to directly employ the workers on a proper contract, and treat them properly. Evidence of this option is becoming difficult to find.

Unions are doing what they can to show that things will get much worse if the UK leaves the EU.  If only the public understood how bad things are already are...

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The treatment of security guards is false economy, unnecessary and cruel.

John and Graham both started work at the local factory more than twenty years ago.  They both agreed to an internal transfer and became Security Guards in the gatehouse.

That wasn't a good decision...

During the last ten years, they have been "TUPE'd" to several different employers.

There were ten of them when the factory first contracting out security to a third party / dodgy employer.  John and Graham are the only remaining guards from that time.

So why have 80% of these workers quit since 2006?

Quite simply, they've been treated appallingly.  This pair have doggedly used their union to defend what decent terms and conditions they have, including an enhanced overtime rate and modest sick pay scheme. Sometimes these things get paid,,,sometimes they don't....sometimes it's not done properly. Everything in every direction is always hassle.

Despite constant pressure to attack these things, the duo have held firm and resisted.  But most walked away because they didn't want or need the grief.

In ten years, they haven't had a pay rise.

There have been too many injustices to list here.  I will simply chose one...

Two years ago, Graham hit his 20 year anniversary of continuous employment at the factory. He was contractually entitled to a payment of £400.  Factory workers still directly employed by the factory also get a framed thank-you, plus a meal out.

Graham got nothing.  Quite rightly, he raised a grievance.  The employer agreed the £400 was an entitlement, and blamed the factory for not paying it to them so they could pass it on.  I thought it was very sad that Graham wouldn't even raise the thank-you or meal.  He wanted neither from them,

The grievance outcome was that the employer promised to get the £400 sorted ASAP.

It's still not sorted now.

Even the HR at the factory became disgusted at the behaviour of the security firm.  They could show that the payment of the £400 wasn't their responsibility. However, they eventually took the extraordinary decision to pay the money directly to the security firm. They instructed them in writing to pay the money to Graham ASAP.

The security firm simply kept the £400 ! Words fail me.

Understandably, the factory management are annoyed.  I will be extremely surprised if a contract extension is awarded to this abysmal firm.

But that won't be the end of the story, it will simply be the beginning of a new chapter, and a new attempt to get these men to sign a terrible new contract.

So where is the sense in all of this?

Ten years ago, there were ten highly motivated guards who knew the factory inside out.  They were proud to work there. They undertook more patrols than was required. They were friendly and helpful to visitors.

Now there are ten miserable, demotivated guards, all going through the motions and wishing they were somewhere else. Only John and Graham have a proper, permanent contract. Some of them would turn a blind eye to a security issue. I don't blame them.

Ten years ago they were part of the factory xmas party. Now, like the cleaners, they have become invisible.  Now they are excluded from all factory social functions.

I wish this story was a rarity.  But this sort of shoddiness applies to thousands of businesses across the UK, and are found in most sectors of the economy.   It means hundreds of thousands of unhappy people, and thousands of less secure businesses.  What major business has kept it's guards in-house? I can't think of any.

The treatment of security guards is false economy, unnecessary and cruel.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Widespread sexual harassment of waitresses shames us all and must be stopped

My friend recently took her first bar job.  "Move bitch",said the manager as he brushed past in an inappropriate way. Thinking she'd been unlucky, Chloe took a job in a different bar, but experienced similarly degrading experiences.

I wish this was the exception. A sickening 90% of female restaurant staff experience sexual harassment. Most of the research into the epidemic comes from America, where the shameful abuse is no better than here. Legally, the situation in USA is worse, as some waitresses may be lawfully dismissed for putting on weight.  I am appalled to have found a "reputable" law website write that "scantily clad waitresses are surprised by sexual harassment".

There is quite a bit of "why waitresses put up with sexual harassment" media comment. Typically, it's the culture of tipping that gets the blame.  I'm not convinced by that.

Who is carrying out the abuse?  According to a study of 700 waitresses across America, 80% of waitresses have suffered sexual harassment from colleagues. 78% reported they'd had it from customer, and almost as many said management were also in on the act.

My own experience of representing waitresses, bar staff and hotel workers in East Staffordshire is no different.

The disturbing situation raises three main questions:

1.  What is wrong with society?  Never mind why are workers putting up with it....why is it happening in the first place?

2. Why is public silence deafening?  I believe this can mostly be explained by the fact that these workers have no collective voice.  Plus, it doesn't help that the quiet death of industrial correspondents means that every workplace problem is under reported, not reported, or misreported.

3. What is to be done?

I believe there are two big changes that could eradicate most sexual harassment:

1. What would happen if laws guaranteed full union rights across retail, hospitality and service industries?

Collective representation for all workers would bring real change.   Grievances and legal actions would change the culture.  Managers would soon learn that inappropriate behaviour results in a P45.   Colleagues would soon learn the same.  A bad reputation can follow a worker around like a bad smell. Workers at all levels would soon learn that it's not worth risking a job and reputation for the sake of being a sexual harasser.   Changing sexual harassment from "you won't be caught" to "you will be caught" would bring about the necessary sea change in behaviour that we desperately need,

Currently, it's virtually impossible for waitresses/bar staff etc to unionise.  Our laws are deliberately weighted against doing this. Eg Zero hour contracts make it so easy to sack activists without legal worries. Our laws need to be driven by the needs of people, not big business.

Why should people have to jump through hoops to secure human rights such as a voice and representation?  Why must we "opt in" for workplace rights when every other right is automatically enshrined in law? I don't need to "opt in" for trial by jury.  I can't opt out of it.  What's the difference? I can just about understand those who say that not being in a union is a "right", but making workers "opt-in" to having a collective voice and collective representation is wicked.  Just look at the misery it's causing.

Union-organised workers, in partnership with reputable employers, would find ways of robustly dealing with customers who remain wedded to sexual harassment. Sexual harassment still happens in well organised union workplaces....including where women are serving the public...but it's rare.

2.  Women need protecting from employers who continue to objectify them.   Better legal remedies will encourage better company policies.

So yes, unions could stamp out most sexual harassment,

But it's not just waitresses.  It's hotel workers, bar staff and numerous other occupations. What these occupations share is an absence of union representation. Unions could do so much good, if only our laws helped rather than hindered.

But back to the original question, what is wrong with society?   If this question isn't worthy of national debate, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Insecure work : destroying families, causing deaths

These claims might sound extreme. But in my experience of working with people in insecure jobs, both statements are true.

According to the ONS, 42% of marriages end in divorce.

There are no reliable statistics about the causes of divorce.  I speak to union members all the time about problems they have at home. Often they will tell me they separated due to arguing all the time. But let's look at the pressures that cause them to argue....

Insecure work means you don't know if your next pay packet is your last one.  That places huge pressure on a family, including inevitable rows about money.  It's hard enough when you have secure work that is badly paid.  But insecure low pay is a total nightmare when it comes to holding your family together.

Most Agency and zero hour workers are at the beck and call of the employer.   Will Dad be OK to watch his son play footie for the school team a week on Thursday?  Dad doesn't know.  It might be awkward or unwise to ask.  When you are desperate to keep the money coming in, it can be hard or unwelcome to ask for time off.   Can the daughter do the Ballet class she'd love?  Well, can she? The parents may argue about that if income is insecure.  It's far harder for any member of the family to do normal things that most people can do. The pressure this places upon families is terrible. Obviously, it also causes unhappiness.

There has been so little debate about why our kids are amongst the unhappiest in the world. This shames us all.  The media have tended to blame parents, eg excessive screen time.

But millions of Mums and Dads are doing **** jobs and are exhausted. With shift work, they may rarely see each other.  Family meals may be a rarity, if at all.   Kids may have excessive screen time, but that's no surprise if there's little chance of family outings, quality family time or cash to do something.

Without doubt, insecure work pressures families and breaks families.

I don't believe any of what I've posted so far can be disputed.

But perhaps controversially. I also believe insecure work is killing people.

It is known that bad employers can be responsible for horrific injuries and fatalities in the workplace. But that's not what I'm talking about.

Agency workers often don't get smear tests.  Neither do zero-hour workers.  That's just one example.

For those with insecure work, it's risky to ask for time off.  Not all the 2.5 million or so workers in this position have it so bad that they can't get a smear test.  But many do, and I see it all the time in my East Staffs patch as a Union official.

Common sense tells me that insecure work results in people not being diagnosed soon enough with serious conditions.  This, of course, results in needless deaths, family crises and additional pressures on public services.  Many people think insecure work is a temporary thing, but most "placements" with an Agency last years, and could and should be proper, permanent jobs.

These issues are not trivial.  The march towards casual UK Plc ("flexible labour markets") will get worse so long as we have a Conservative government.

Conservative politicians say they are the party of the family.  A grotesque lie, straight from the political wing of global hedge funds and big business. Sickening.