Zero power for workers on zero hours contracts

Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors

The Thompsons Solicitors Union Home blog


Following an informal information gathering exercise last year, the government recently announced a consultation on zero hours contracts to investigate the extent of their use and abuse by unscrupulous employers.  Many union members will already know the answer.


Workers on zero hours contracts go without even the most basic employment rights. They are expected to be available as and when they are needed but without any guarantee of paid work. They can be sent home without warning and often receive no holiday or sick pay.  Even more shocking is the use of ‘exclusivity clauses’ which ban the employee from taking employment elsewhere -even when no work is available.


Employers take advantage of the fact that zero hours contracts are not properly defined in law so there is a serious lack of transparency around the terms and conditions under which workers are employed; conditions which place the balance of power overwhelmingly in favour of the employer.


And, it is worrying that the government doesn’t know how many people are currently employed on zero-hours contracts.Estimates vary wildly – it could be anything between 250,000 (Office of National Statistics) and 1 million (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development).


As part of its consultation, the government is seeking views on the abuse of exclusivity clauses and on the various terms and conditions under which those on zero hours contracts are employed.  The consultation also includes proposals to introduce measures to avoid abuse and to provide guidance on the fair use of zero hours contracts.


To fight the cost of living crisis staring the UK in the face, it is vital that abuse from unscrupulous employers,who put profits ahead of the basic welfare of their workers is tackled head on. While we may be encouraged that this consultation has been opened, it is hard not to dismiss it as a way for the government to put an issue that requires immediate redress on the back burner.


Given this government’s record on tackling employment rights, we should be sceptical as to whether the consultation will lead to real action to tackle zero hours contracts once and for all.


To submit your view on the consultation (which closes on 13 March), click here:

11% pay increase for MP’s- sounds reasonable to me!

Warren Town is SoR Director of Industrial Relations

It appears that MP’s truly get a bad press and when they get some good news we cannot help but knock them for six.

Take the 11% increase in pay announced by the independent parliamentary watchdog. Does this seem unreasonable in the light of day?  After all is it right that we should see our leaders reduced to lining up at food banks for their cans of beans and staple diet. Is it unreasonable to expect our leaders to rummage around in their piggy banks to pay for their second home or delve into the back of the sofa in the hope they will scratch together enough money to pay for their tea and biscuits.

These are the people we elect to sort out the country, to bring us back on track and show us that all the pain and loss will be worth it. This is a monumental burden that they have to shoulder and hence is it unreasonable that as we scrimp and save for Xmas they should, at the very least, see some benefit from their toil, their burden of guilt and the difficult decisions and that they have to make day after day.

Is it not right that we should attract the most able millionaires to the cabinet and not be faced with second best?  Is it not the case that we should equate their earnings with High Court Judges, Senior Officials in Local government and Head Teachers, who have themselves struggled to keep their wages apace with rampant inflation and have been known, heaven forbid,  to downgrade their brands of whiskey all because of austerity.


Should we, public servants, not also be beacons and trendsetters and heed requests from the government that we forgo increments and any pay rise to help the country prosper? Should we not also be joyful that they have an impendent body that can legally impose any increase on them despite their pleas and utterances that they share the pain of austerity with the citizens of this nation?

Is it not time we thanked them for endless ‘U Turns’ on policy that cost us dearly in time and money, for their slavish support for their expenses policy, for their actions to undermine and destroy public service in England and should we not forget that they, not us, already earn in excess of three times the average salary of a common citizen and just a little more for so few will not make that much difference to the economic plan.
As Danny Alexander said it would be “wholly inappropriate” at a time of curbs on pay in the public sector for MP’s to receive this level of award. This goes to show that MP’s do appreciate what we are going through and that they are fully aware that they have no choice but to accept.

These are our leaders, our saviours and the very group we elect to act in our best interests.

Just keep that thought in mind in two years time.

Handling small-scale redundancies

Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors

The regular Thompsons Solicitors blog


British workers are feeling less secure than at any time in the past 20 years.


Below-inflation pay cuts are creating a cost of living crisis whilst under-employment and more precarious working terms are becoming the norm for many. Redundancies or the threat of them are a weapon used too casually by employers looking to save money and increase profits in uncertain times, particularly in non-unionised workplaces.


This is why it is timely for Acas, the conciliation and arbitration service, to publish new guidance that gives employers advice on how to handle small-scale redundancies. However, it’s a given that no unscrupulous employer will make any effort to inform employees of their rights and the proper legal process, so the guide can also be used by employees to insist on that happening.


Despite this Government slashing the redundancy consultation periods, there are still minimums. Where an employer is proposing to make 20 or more employees redundant within 90 days, they must consult with their employees on the changes at least 30 days before the date of dismissal. The consultation period for more than 100 people is a minimum of 45 days.


However most redundancies number less than 20 workers which means there is no minimum consultation period, and in most private workplaces no union representation to guide them through.


‘Handling small-scale redundancies – a step-by-step guide’ is aimed particularly at small and medium sized businesses that are considering making fewer than 20 people redundant.


Acas rightly advises employers to first consider alternatives to redundancies such as offering flexible working, stopping the recruitment of new workers, retraining staff to facilitate new areas of growth, or reducing or ending overtime. If these are not openly considered and offered, workers might want to refer to the guide and ask their employer why.


However, if the alternatives have been looked at and rejected, Acas recommends a seven step plan:

1.           Brief managers to make sure they are prepared to effectively handle a testing redundancy situation

2.           Talk to staff – it is a legal requirement to consult with each affected staff member individually, not only those who might face redundancy

3.           Be careful in how staff are chosen for redundancy using clear criteria for which posts may have to go

4.           Talk about redundancy notice and pay – this can help reassure staff

5.           Consider notice period rights and what time off workers are allowed to take to look for other work

6.           Uphold a staff member’s right to appeal

7.           Think about the future of the business and make the best use of remaining staff


Good employers should already be aware of what is legally required and what is considered proper ethical behaviour. However, some employers seek to ignore the law or whinge that it is too complicated and weighted against them. Acas’ simple guide, while a good antidote to their excuses and useful information for workers and their representatives, is ultimately no replacement for union representation.


To access step one of the guide, click here

Government advice to interns fails to address the root cause of their exploitation

Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors

The Thompsons Solicitors UnionHome blog


Internships have become a way for unscrupulous employers to undermine and evade the National Minimum Wage (NMW) and the government has recently published new guidance for interns with the stated aim of helping them to protect their right to fair pay.


A new video and posters attempt to explain to interns what their rights are in relation to NMW, where to go for more information and what action they can take if they feel they have been exploited.


Alongside the new guidance, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) – who are meant to enforce NMW on behalf of the government – will send out letters to 200 employers who have recently advertised internship opportunities and unpaid work to notify them that checks will be carried out to make sure that employers are remunerating interns in line with the law.


So far so positive but the government is still far from being able to guarantee the end of interns’ exploitation.


Recently Unite said it will be writing to HMRC to report that a third of the UK’s top 50 charity employers are using unpaid interns – despite the government’s previous attempts to enforce a code of conduct for the use of interns across all sectors.


Unite’s move follows its report in May, made with Intern Aware, Interns in the voluntary sector – time to end exploitation, which showed the extent to which charities are using ambiguities in NMW legislation to avoid paying their interns.


The sad fact is that, however much the government seeks to inform interns about their rights and encourage employers to implement best practice, the NMW regime is too easily ignored.


Many un-paid internships are already illegal. As the government’s new material states: ‘if the intern has a list of duties they have to fulfill and fixed times when they have to work, the intern is likely to be a worker and entitled to be paid’.


And yet despite the law many interns are doing a job of work and are carrying out the same duties as permanent employees in the same office – except without the pay they are legally entitled to or the likelihood of securing a paid role once the internship ends.


What interns – and anyone else in low paid work – really need is a National Minimum Wage regime that is both robust and properly enforced to make sure that wage exploitation by employers is made far more difficult.


Holding a mirror, shining a light – Trade Unions, Liberty and Human rights

The annual Human Rights awards,  hosted by Liberty, has rightly become an important fixture in each autumn’s calendar.  An opportunity to be humbled and inspired in  equal measure – a chance to learn about and reflect upon the civil liberties challenges and responses of the past year.


This year co-incides with the 60th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights – the forerunner of our own Human Rights Act., now in its own 15th year. And for something so long established, it is truly frightening that there are so many examples of adherence to this piece of international and domestic law being seen as voluntary, or partial.

So the awards evening was a time for, in my view, the true heroes of our age. Individuals and groups  who, Not for profit or personal recognition, but out of  what  Jude Kelly called “a ferocious idea that we all belong together”, stuck  their necks out, refused to  give in, drew their own lines in the sand and were determined to tell – or reveal – the truth.

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” wrote George Orwell, and that was a strong  theme throughout he evening.  Frances O’Grady and Chukka Umunna presented the “Collective Voice” award to the  Holocaust Educational Trust who spoke of the challenges of the transition from the Holocaust being living  history to just history. Jinan Younis received the Christine Jackson Young Person  award  for setting up  a  feminist society at her all-girls school and being  bullied and harassed because of it. Paul Houston spoke most movingly after receiving an award  for defending rights and  freedoms in response to sustained and “toxic” attacks on the Human Rights Act  by some  politicians and  media after the  death of his daughter. It surely cannot be right to usurp something like that for such undignified, dishonest ends.

Caroline Criado Perez – the woman whose campaign against all-male British banknotes    resulted in   Jane Austen going on the back of tenners from 2017 – used her acceptance speech to highlight the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (or in the UK,  A long title, but apparently police in England receive 1 call a minute on this  subject - but research shows it takes 35  attacks  before someone will pick up the phone and call for help. It is right to describe this, as she did, as a “global health emergency”.

Image of the night for me was the video of Celeste Dandeker-Arnold’s award winning dance troupe. the first fully integrated disabled and able-bodied group. It was utterly amazing to see how, for example, differently abled people, together with whatever supporting aids they needed could meld so seamlessly together.


If you have stayed with this piece so far, you may be thinking “all well and good, but so what….”  There are two answers to that.

The first is that the right  for all of us to be treated equally under the law is truly under direct  threat. Barriers to access justice are being  erected. UK Newspapers carrying  Edward Snowden’s disclsoures are criticised – including having journalists gratuitously detained under the Terrorism Act, and editors summonsed   before select Parliamentary committees (although their counterparts in the US and Germany not subject too such measures. Whole communities are being placed beyond the law. Stephanie Harrison QC who won an award for her work on migrants’ rights, gave a cry from the heart:  “If we do not stand to defend our rights we will lose them.”

The second is that we as trade unionists are directly affected by all of this.  Not just because we are also members of society and citizens. But because we too do what we do and believe what we believe   because of that “ferocious idea”.  Because we - our society – achieves more by co-operation that conflict, because we dare to dream – because we assert a human right to the imagination. Because there are many, in politics, in the media who wish to deny our rights and   diminish our aspirations.

It remains my view that many more trade unions and trade unionists need to be part of Liberty. We  can’t leave this all to the lawyers. Human rights are everyone’s business. The awards evening  emphasised the connection with  our core and common purpose,  and that we can and do change things  by what we do.


Filtering “common sense” to benefit the employer

Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors

The Thompsons Solicitors blog


David Cameron has stepped up his campaign against worker’s rights by asking for a “common sense filter” on EU ‘red tape’.


A business task force commissioned by the government and made up of only employer representatives has identified 30 priority areas where EU regulations are said to be a barrier to economic growth, from ‘excessively strict’ food labeling to health and safety assessments.


The report is predicated on the basis that anything that protects people, such as workers’ rights, data protection and even controls on clinical trials for new medicines is a costly ‘encumbrance’.


EU regulations on employment rights apparently cause ‘a huge headache’ for employers and the “common sense”. The solution? Attack the rights of working people.


The report suggests, amongst other things scrapping proposed protection for British workers sent to other EU countries, removing the rights of agency workers – an increasingly common feature of the employment market in rapidly privatising public services – to equal pay with non agency staff, and stopping measures that would make abuses of work experience by employers illegal.


Singled out for particular attack by the taskforce is the Working Time Directive (WTD) because of ‘problems’ caused by European Court rulings that have ‘expanded the original scope of the legislation’.  It’s a familiar refrain as it parrots the government’ line in its consultation on the issue in May 2011.


The report’s self justificatory line that employment and health and safety laws simply represent a burden to business and bring no benefit is familiar stuff from this government and its mates in business but marrying that rhetoric with “common sense” is dishonest as good employers are well aware.


Read the Labour & European Law Review on the Business Taskforce report “Cut EU red tape” –



Community organising is so important – in all its forms

I was privileged recently to spend some time in the company of iconic US community/union organiser Arnie Graf. Part of his current brief is to revitalise the Labour Party’s links with the community and his work has won many plaudits.


As someone who passionately believes that the future of trade unionism in the UK depends on us meaning as much to people in their communities as we do to them at work, the occasion,   a fringe event at the TUC, organised by Unite, on Community Trade Unionism, was “no miss” event.


There are, self-evidently, many models of “community organising” on display.


Unite has its Community section, now 4000 strong which is deliberately aimed at recruiting – and dare I say organising – unemployed people. Philosophically and practically you can see the attraction. High levels of unemployment undercut the terms and conditions of those in work. The young unemployed have no experience of trade unionism and involvement in the Community Section will mean that they already have access to support when they enter the workplace.  And it is also empowering for the individuals.


In fact, this  seem to be the most  noticeable achievement of the section so far – enabling people  who  do not have a voice,  or  who  feel they cannot exercise influence, the means to do just that.


But whilst self-empowerment and the democratisation of society are central aims of trade unions, they are not our only defining qualities.  The Unite initiative arguably takes unions into new territory. “Ultimately isn’t about numbers signed up?” asked someone at the fringe event.


I think that is a question for another day.  The increase in people who are active is the most important thing of all at present. Whose logo they have on their t-shirt is a secondary issue.


An alternative model of community organising in TSSA, the small but impressive Transport and Salaried Staffs Association, is articulated by their National Organiser Nadine Rae.  There is clearly a community of interests shared by all those who use the rail network, either for employment, commerce or just travel.  TSSA has appointed three organisers whose brief is to make the links with the users of the services their members provide – principally the travelling public.


I believe that this is important in a number of ways.


First, it broadens the alliance of people with the same overall strategic objective – better funding for and management of the rail network. More people equals louder voice.


Second,  it  isn’t just numbers -  it  broadens the base of the campaign, and it is  a fair bet that many commuters in, say,  the Home Counties  may not  share the same overall politics as the  union – so there is a real increase in the “reach” of the campaign.


And third, it makes trade unions a relevant voice in  the community and not just the workplace.


Incidentally, a potential hypothetical criticism is that the campaign does not add to the “bottom line” of increased   numbers of members.  But I think (and it is  for the TSSA NEC, of course, not me  to say) the advantages  could well eclipse the membership issue – not least the way in which   this has helped make  rail  a key political issue now and in the 2015  general election too.


There is a   third model of community trade unionism that my own union, CWU, has developed. This takes the form  of  specific campaigns to  root  trade unions in  the communities where  our members live, rather than   have a  dedicated resource for  community  organising  that  is  separate   to those campaigns.


That is clear a prerequisite for our largest campaigns – Keep the Post Public and Save Our Royal Mail for example. But that is more about engaging the public as part of a grand coalition, than getting our members to take our union home with them.


Our campaigns on Climate Change, Mental Health and Housing are all about practical ways in which the union can – and does – respond to issues that affect members at home and at work.  These issues self-select by virtue, for example, of policy motions to our conference. They are therefore being generated and driven by our members and local reps, and not Head Office.


The advantage of this approach is – clearly – that is it “organic”.  It grows up from the roots of our union. The next stage of development would be see if these stand-alone campaigns should or could to be joined together to make a comprehensive “community programme.”


In my view, the approach adopted by the NZCTU is one which deserves much wider recognition. There, affiliates have ceded some autonomy and money to create a dedicated organisation looking to mobilise support from the community for trade unions and issues identified as trade union priorities.  Here, the emphasis is on additional resource and leverage initially through attracting supporters in this way and from this constituency rather than increasing membership.


Graf himself talks of   the transformational value of focussing on Community Leaders – essentially this means that these leaders bring their supporters with them rather than the union having to try to engage the self-same supporters directly.  Within the CWU, we have had direct examples of this with pockets of potential members from the same non-English speaking demographic.  Making contact with and then working with a respected member of this group’s community was not just an effective way to step up recruitment of this group – it was the only way.


In some unions, historically there has been a close overlap between community and workplace  – Community’s membership, for example, was based in what were known as “steel towns” or “mill towns”. For much of the last century,  the  NUM occupied  similar   territory  with  pits  dominating  (or in some cases  generating)  the surrounding  communities.


But now we have a different challenge – on the one hand we are living through a political hurricane, uprooting old certainties and structures. As one senior shadow cabinet member remarked to me recently “Who would have thought that everything we built over 13 years could be swept away so easily.”  The effect on our values is chilling and destructive.  So we need a political, organisational response.


But on the other hand, our members and potential members, our supporters and sympathisers are suffering and many feel marginalised and disempowered.


And that is why community organising is so important – in all its forms – in 2013. A movement rooted in both workplace and community is better placed to withstand attacks on either. Informed, and empowered and organised people are not only a defensive tactic – it also increases the resources and power of progressive agents for change. We must not let any confusion about what is meant by “community organising” distract from that key objective.


Read the Unions21 publication The Future for Union Community Organising


When the politicians get it wrong! – Again!

Warren Town is SoR Director of Industrial Relations

This week has seen more than just the St Jude storm; we have also seen a flurry of judicial outcomes that question if we should leave decision making to politicians.

Take the payout for the sacked head of services for Haringey. This is reported to be in the region of 600k but as it is under the terms of a confidential agreement we cannot be absolutely sure of the exact sum. Leaving the amount aside and the morality of this payment, it is worth considering how it can happen that someone who is ultimately responsible for the safety of children, can in fact be recompensed for a dismissal for what was seen by many as failure. The answer is as simple as it is tragic.

 The Children’s Secretary at the time was Ed Balls [Labour] instead of leaving the decision to dismiss to the appropriate authority; he decided to act. He dismissed Ms Shoesmith and that decision was seen as unfair and in the words of the Court of Appeal, Ms Shoesmith had been ‘Unfairly scapegoated’ and the decision taken by Balls was ‘intrinsically unfair and unlawful’.

Ed [Balls not Miliband] now takes the view that the payout to Ms Shoesmith now ‘leaves a bad taste in the mouth’. But what of his decision to dismiss; does this not leave us with that same bad taste because had he left the decision to a competent authority than we, the taxpayer, would not have to foot this bill. It is all very well trying to blame someone else when the root cause is your own incompetence.

Now we move onto another decision that has hit the news this week. The coalition has lost a Supreme Court of Appeal about the flagship policy- ‘Back to Work’ schemes. These scheme required claimant’s to work for nothing or take a benefit cut. 5 Supreme Court Justices ruled that the government had failed to provide “sufficient detailed prescribed description” of the schemes and what would happen if people refused to take part. A further claim that the schemes amounted to ‘Slave Labour’ was not upheld but nevertheless the government now has to spend valuable time revisiting the terms of the schemes to get them fit for purpose.  In response the government Minister responsible for this debacle [Iain Duncan Smith] said “we have always said that it was ridiculous to say that our schemes amounted to forced labour, and yet again we have won this argument’.

Umm, no you haven’t, you have had the status of the commitment clarified but you lost the appeal and you now have to revise the scheme to meet the requirements of the ruling. Talk about cheery picking your argument!!

And now we come to the real humdinger!  Having lost at the first hurdle to enforce his decision to cut back emergency and maternity services at Lewisham, Jeremy Hunt goes all out to argue his case at the Court of Appeal. And they say- he does not have the power to do so. The High Court had already said that Hunt’s decision was unlawful and lacked power, not to mention that it breached the National Health Act 2006. It would appear that the Court of Appeal agrees with the lower court and the Minister is left with egg on his face and a bad taste in his mouth.

Then again you need to look carefully at the response from the coalition. Not content with squandering public money on a fool’s errand he now wants’ to ‘…look at the law to make sure that at a time of great challenge the NHS is able to change and innovate when local doctors believe it is in the interests of patients’. I may have missed something here but how do the’ interests of patients ‘ conflict with the interests of the local populace who opposed this move and are likely to be the patients that he has decided that he and his cronies must protect?  It smells of sour grapes and the use of political power in government to get what he wants despite the wishes of the local people. It does seem at odds with the concept of ‘big society’ [remember this idea from the coalition- as Hunt has clearly forgotten] that his leader, Dave Cameron, wanted to champion. A sort of power to the people thingy.

It has not been a good week for the politicians, but it has been an expensive week for the rest of us.

Further tinkering removes tribunal fees safety net for almost everyone

Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors

As of July this year, Employment Tribunals stopped being free to access. The Ministry of Justice claimed this was to save money for the tax-payer and clamp down on workers who chose to unnecessarily escalate workplace disputes to a tribunal.


No doubt aware of the backlash this move would generate, the government sugared the pill with a facility whereby vulnerable low-earners could receive a full or partial waiver of tribunal fees.


However, in a reminder of the government’s true colours, this week has seen new restrictions come into force which drastically weaken this essential safety net leaving the remissions scheme almost worthless and playing into the hands of unscrupulous employers who want to take advantage of workers.


Now individuals – or their partners – with savings or investments of just £3,000 will have to pay the full £1,200 fee, whether or not they are out of work or on a low wage. That’s £250 upfront and £950 due on the day of the tribunal.


Research commissioned by the TUC shows that just one in 20 workers over the age of 50 are now likely to be fully exempt from paying the full amount. And, with fewer than one in four workers over 50 likely to receive any kind of financial support, those sacked because of their age may end up paying the full amount as well. The analysis also shows that, even among households where someone is on the minimum wage, less that a quarter of workers will benefit from any support.


The change also means that disabled workers are more likely to be disadvantaged, with only one in nine exempt from paying the full £1,200.


TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has commented that the changes “could mean thousands of older workers having to raid their retirement savings if they want to seek justice against an employer that has mistreated them [and] make it easier for rogue bosses to get away with mistreating staff, not paying them properly and dodging the minimum wage.”


Read Thompsons’ response to the fees remission consultation at:


Click on the image to access the full Thompsons Labour and European Law Review




You’ve had zero hours, now try a sliver of time

Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors

The weekly Thompsons Solicitors Blog


You might think the outcry after a report revealed that more than a million people are on zero hours contracts would make government ministers think twice before bragging about other ruses to take advantage of desperation for work. But not this government – or, at least, not Lord Freud, the Minister for Welfare Reform.


As ever, nasty stuff has a euphemistic name – ‘slivers of time’ – the idea being to create a marketplace where workers bid against each other to see who can offer the lowest price to do very short, sub part-time, periods of work.


Some local authorities, including Tory-led Hammersmith and Fulham, have been using it for several years, and Tesco opened up slivers of time to its workforce in 2010.


The champion of this scheme, Lord Freud, is a man with no background in social policy and who is best known for leading the somewhat botched floatation of Eurotunnel.


He is responsible for spearheading government attacks on the Welfare State and is notorious for commenting that Scottish welfare claimants should get a job if they wanted an extra bedroom.


At a fringe session on welfare at the Conservative Party Conference, Freud described slivers of time as ‘a marketplace for short hours’ where an employer would say ‘right, we want three hours on Wednesday afternoon – what am I bid?’ That group would then say ‘I’ll do it for £10 an hour, £15 an hour… whatever’.


In other words, slivers is a Dutch auction for job seekers’ time, set up to encourage it to be sold as a commodity in a race-to-the-bottom. And, if people are forced to work at rates below the national minimum wage, such contracts could potentially be unlawful.


In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference, David Cameron announced that 16 to 25 year olds ‘Neets’ (Not in Education Employment or Training) who refuse to take up offers of education, work or training will have their benefits stopped.


But rather than conjuring up ideas for finding random hours of work to fill on shoddy terms, the government should concentrate on how best to place people into real jobs on a fair rate of pay.


Slivers of time may well have positive applications in limited circumstances if done on the worker’s own terms. But its integration into a benefits regime that operates on compulsion takes us back to the Victorian days and the fundamentally exploitative nature of workers having to tout for anything they were lucky enough to get.


Read the Labour & European Law Review on zero-hours contracts