Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Workers’ Rights for All

Across Britain, millions of low-paid and precarious workers are denied even the insufficient rights that are afforded to others – it's time to fight for universal workers' rights.

On sick pay, unemployment benefits, maternity and paternity leave, annual leave and even bank holidays, the UK is falling behind the rest of Europe.

This is one of the findings of a new report by the think tank Autonomy, calling for universal workers rights to be recognised in UK law. Post-Brexit, the time is right to consider how workers’ rights can be upgraded and improved across the board.

A key problem with the UK system is that large numbers of workers currently make below the lower earnings limit of £120 per week, meaning they do not qualify for any financial support from their employers. This system effectively punishes those who are in low income, insecure jobs and rewards those in long-term, well-paid positions.

As the number of workers on zero hours contracts has risen, so has insecurity. In the second quarter of 2020, the number of workers on these contracts rose to over 1 million for the first time. They continue to stay stubbornly above pre-pandemic numbers.

Though often criticised for the lack of secure hours they offer workers, and the power they give employers to cancel shifts at the last moment, rarely are they considered in terms of the legal status they offer workers. Generally not classified as ‘employees’ but as ‘workers’, those on these contracts are likely to have significantly reduced access to workers’ rights.

The self-employed are also failed by our current settlement. There is no proper reason why workers on these contracts should not be extended benefits such as statutory sick pay, holiday pay and maternity pay. Their benefits and rights should be covered by the state, like in Slovenia where the government pays statutory sick pay to independent contractors.

But giving full and equal rights to every worker in the UK should not just mean that every working person has access to all the existing rights but also that we enhance the existing settlement as well as supplement it with a range of new and improved rights. 

Of particular concern in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is sick pay. Statutory sick pay in the UK is among the worst in Europe, and was found to be in breach of the European social charter, which described it as ‘manifestly inadequate’.

In the Netherlands, which has the most generous sick pay, workers receive 70 percent of their pay for up to two years. While in Norway, employers are obligated to pay a worker’s full salary for up to a year. In Spain, 60 percent of an employee’s wage will be paid for as much as 18 months. 

In the Autonomy report we call for the UK to go further—for statutory sick pay in the UK to marry the best facets of the Norwegian and Dutch systems and offer full pay for up to two years. Likewise, the UK should raise the standard of maternity and paternity leave to the level of other European countries, and offer 18 months between parents at full rate of salary.

However, improvements to our ailing settlement are not enough. The climate crisis and pandemic are radically transforming the world of work and we need to supplement our current settlement with new rights.

The ecological crisis means that we need to work less and work smarter. In the report, we propose a ‘Right to a Liveable Planet’, which would give every worker a number of allocated paid hours each year to engage in activities that are beneficial to the planet. This might involve tree planting, local rewilding or undertaking training to do sustainable work, or it might simply involve taking ‘eco-days’ dedicated to low-carbon activities such as bird spotting, walking in local countryside or city parks, maintaining hiking paths and tending to local community gardens.

The pandemic has meant that many workers are no longer going into the office. Those without space for a home office have to find their own workspace as well as buy and maintain expensive equipment such as laptops. Every worker should have the right to publicly funded workspace and equipment. 

Equally, remote workers should be given the opportunity to switch off from e-mails and phone calls at the end of the day. A ‘Right to Disconnect’ would enshrine this principle in law, making it illegal for bosses to contact and ‘switch back on’ their workers during the evenings and weekends.

Given that the impacts of climate change, the pandemic and the associated cost of living crisis are likely to worsen over the coming years, this ambitious settlement of rights should be the starting point for anyone on the side of working people. That some will think such proposals impossibly utopian demonstrates how low the UK’s bar has dropped when it comes to workers’ rights. These demands are not fanciful or idealistic, but the bear minimum workers deserve in the twenty-first century.