Many of us know people who have been unfairly dismissed from their jobs, some not just unfairly but also illegally. This writer knows people who have had employers ask their colleagues to fabricate customer complaints against them in an attempt to sack them, have used a zero hours contract to effectively sack another for being pregnant, who threatened another with dismissal when they couldn’t complete the extra unpaid workload of two colleagues who had left, and yet another whose boss sacked her in order to bring in an apprentice at a third of her wage and then fabricated a theft accusation to the police when she went to her union and lodged a claim through a tribunal for unpaid wages and notice.
When something like this happens to our friends, our family or even us, we expect to be able to turn to a tribunal or a union for help in fighting an injustice – and indeed, this is what has been in place for several decades now. It’s what unions were set up to do – to liaise and adjudicate between employer and employee in the event of a dispute, in order to come to an agreement or to support an employee through a claim of unfair dismissal, or other employment law issues.
However, since 2013, this right to justice has been done away with – well, not exactly done away with, but unless you have £1200 spare to pay the new tribunal fees, then certainly as good as. And if you are claiming unfair dismissal, then the whole point is that you don’t have the income anymore to be able to pay such fees – and therein lies the crux of the matter.
Justice, it seems, is only for those who can afford it. Like education, or healthcare, it has its price – and if you can’t afford it, well, tough.
The government claim that these fees were brought in to stop spurious “vexatious” claims which wasted court time and had little or no chance of success, incurring legal costs to the employer. The truth is, though, that tribunals already had an effective system for weeding out such claims before they reached tribunal stage, and ensuring that the vast majority of those reaching the courtroom had been through conciliation and other talks aimed at preventing a tribunal appearance and had failed – and win or lose, it was accepted that not only did the employer have an opportunity to present their evidence against their employee, but that the employee had access to advice and support throughout the process.
The balance has now been skewed dramatically towards the employer, with the introduction of a draconian raft of fees – from £160 for a basic claim for lost wages, going up to £230 if it reaches tribunal, to £1200 for a claim of unfair dismissal to be heard in a tribunal court.
Unsurprisingly, the number of tribunals immediately dropped by 70% overnight, when these measures were introduced. The government attitude is that the system to discourage ‘vexatious claims’ is therefore working, as they have seen such a huge reduction – but do any of us really believe that 70% of people were ‘playing the system’? Of course not. If you have just lost your job, then how many people have the means to pay a court fee when the priority is to keep their homes, pay their bills and put food on the table?
It is a matter of fairness, as usual. Although Unions are able to take cases at the lower end of the scale, many of them are extremely reluctant to take on unfair dismissal cases – leaving the employee often unemployed and unemployable – and not down to their case being weak, usually far from it, but simply down to the costs that securing any sort of justice now entails.
Unison have mounted a 4-year-long legal campaign to challenge this and although their claim has failed in both the High Court and Court of Appeal, they have now taken the case to the Supreme Court in a bid to get these charges overturned.
But, win or lose, what they are fighting for is something that is already at the heart of Labour’s 10 Policy Pledges – they say,
“We will give people stronger employment rights from day one in a job, end exploitative zero hours contracts and create new sectoral collective bargaining rights, including mandatory collective bargaining for companies with 250 or more employees.
We will create new employment and trade union rights to bring security to the workplace and win better pay and conditions for everyone.
We will strengthen working people’s representation at work and the ability of trade unions to organise so that working people have a real voice at work.
And we will put the defence of social and employment rights, as well as action against undercutting of pay and conditions through the exploitation of migrant labour, at the centre of the Brexit negotiations agenda for a new relationship with Europe.”
These pledges go straight to the heart of what all of us want for ourselves, our friends, our family and for everyone for the future. The Right have attacked this – again, citing ‘taking us back to the 1970s’ and the power of unions to destroy companies – but this is not what democratic socialism for the future is about.
We do not look to returning to the past, where power was abused by some on both ‘sides’ – it is a recognition that there should be a good relationship and respect between employees and employer alike, that if a business treats its employees well, pays them a living wage and gives them hours they can rely on, then those employees will respond in kind and become loyal and committed members of the team and take pride in their work. If there is a dispute, whether the employee or employer is at fault, then the worker has a right to representation by a union rep who will advise them of their rights and support them through the process – and also respect that employers also have a right to expect a certain standard of work and behaviour from that employee.
This is the difference between what Labour is offering and what has been the norm for many years, and getting worse now that unscrupulous employers know they can hire and fire at will, with no comeback for injustices. People deserve to be treated with respect and, as a Collective Voice, we will make a stand and promote this Labour pledge as something we believe the vast majority of people in the UK will not only agree with, but will stand with us in demanding.
If you agree, then join us – add your voice to ours.
Sources and Further Reading