Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Jean Lambert on workers rights

I've had the good fortune to interview Green MEP Jean Lambert on recent developments around workplace legislation in the European Parliament.

Q. This week we've seen the European Parliament vote for equal treatment for temporary agency workers. How important is it that we have specific legislation in place to protect casual workers?

Jean: Very important. While some agency workers are well-paid, well-trained and really looked after by their agencies, others are used for low-grade work in exploitative conditions. I have heard from constituents who have been placed with an employer for years and watched full-contract employees get paid more or promoted, while they are still vulnerable to no notice period or redundancy pay. This legislation changes that situation and ensures temporary workers are treated equally.

Q. In the UK this will only come into force after the worker has been with an employer for 12 weeks. How serious is this in undermining of the principle of equal rights?

Jean: The 12 week period in the UK (as opposed to most countries where equal rights will be enforced from day one) has been included as a result of a social partner agreement between unions and employers in the UK. The risk of having a 12 week period is that agency workers could be paid less than other employees and therefore it could become attractive to use a series of casual workers. While such action could reduce productivity, as experience is lost, it will be necessary to monitor if "serial" employment becomes the norm.

Q. Peter Mandelson has been talking about postponing measures for more flexible working because of the recession. Are Labour right to hold off extending rights during an economic downturn?

Jean: I think this it is a dangerous argument that rights only apply in times of economic prosperity. It begins to echo the view that we can only afford human rights and civil liberties when we are not facing terrorism. Such measures are not merely a convenience. Employers need to retain experienced staff; the Government supports an active labour market policy, so why would they want to force some people to choose between caring responsibilities and staying in work? It doesn't make sense to postpone these changes even within the Government's own logic.

Q. What are the costs of long working hours?

Jean: Tired workers are dangerous workers. Your chance of injury at work goes up with long hours and, if you drive home, you are a greater danger on the roads. Productivity and the ability to think creatively go down. There are additional risks linked to heart disease, obesity, heavy drinking, ability to cope with stress, etc. Many of these things the Government wants to tackle in its health policies, but they are not making the links between working hours and health, and still insist on keeping the UK opt-out from the Working Time Directive’s cap on hours.

Q. Over the last twenty years there has been a significant shift towards 24 hour working. Whether that's shop workers, journalists, whoever. Has this undermined people's ability to control their work life balance?

Jean: I think it has, particularly when the demand for greater flexibility from employees has not been matched by a real increase in security. Many of the sectors involved are not strongly unionised and this has made it very difficult for individuals to exert individual control. They are often sectors, too, where wages are not good, so people's choices can be more limited.

Q. Can we reverse this shift towards casualisation and long working hours away from quality of life? If so, how?

Jean: I think it is difficult to reverse it, so we have to look more carefully at how we manage it and ensure that individuals have power and rights they can really exercise. Government should be ensuring that labour legislation is implemented and enforced: that the minimum wage is not skirted and that union recognition is an important protection. But also, our lives are changing for many reasons and we are gradually coming to recognise that the "work for 40 years, retire and then do what you want" model doesn't fit the reality of what many of us want or need.

For many people, the ability to choose more flexible working hours is exactly what they want and they use this as a way of balancing their lives over a greter period than a single working week. For others, it's a nightmare because there is no security. It doesn't help that our social security and tax systems find it difficult to cope with periods of casual employment or put barriers in the way of people workng more than a certain number of hours in a week. It's the task of the state to ensure security. That's one reason why the Greens have supported the citizens' income as a base for more choice for the individual.

Thanks for that Jean. Be sure to read her excellent Green Work document.

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