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Importing US working practices to the UK - the risk to workers’ rights

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Senior Conservatives are determined to secure a US trade deal that would mean lower standards and fewer protections for workers.

In the run-up to next month’s general election, many senior Conservatives, intent on ‘getting Brexit done’, have expressed their desire to open up parts of the UK economy to US companies.

Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world

Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore & Elizabeth Truss - Britannia Unchained.

But their blind enthusiasm for the Wild West of workers’ rights in the US is deeply worrying. American workers do not enjoy many of the basic rights that workers in the UK do.

For instance, bosses are able to fire workers at will, and there are no national laws governing holiday pay or sick pay. Many companies do not offer maternity or paternity leave.

Virulent anti-union laws mean that only 3.5% of workers are in a union, while outsourcing and increasingly precarious working conditions are becoming the norm.

To consider what might happen if we adopted American-style working conditions in the UK, we need only look at the behaviour of some big US corporations under existing laws.

US corporations in the UK - a worrying track record

American firms are among some of the worst behaved in corporate Britain. These trans-Atlantic tyrants exploit existing weak points in UK employment rights such as zero-hours contracts. Trade unions are often banned from workplaces, and workers often struggle to force employers to honour their rights.

Online retailer Amazon has become the poster child for the importation of poor US-style employment practices into the UK. The company, which refuses to recognise trade unions, has been accused of failing to act on sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions.

Conditions at fast food chain McDonald’s led to the term McJob, a role that is poorly paid and insecure. It has recently faced industrial action by UK workers angry about low pay and the use of zero-hours contracts.

US grocery giant Walmart is notorious for its anti-union practises and poor working conditions at home. It has exported this approach to its UK subsidiary Asda, which has sought to force workers to sign up to a new contract with terms including unpaid breaks, changes to night shift payments, and working at short notice. Those who refused would be laid off, it threatened.

Stories abound of Uber drivers putting in lengthy hours and earning well below the minimum wage. The UK arm of the San Francisco-based company claims that those who drive for it are not their workers, with rights such as the minimum wage and limits on working time. The company recently lost its license to operate in London .

What the Conservatives are saying

Leading Conservatives and their Brexit Party allies are clearly enthusiastic for US-style rock-bottom labour rights.

In their book “Britannia Unchained”, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, several of whom are now prominent Cabinet ministers, eulogise the “frontier spirit” of the US and the ability of bosses to lead a company to bankruptcy and easily start again.

They contrast this with the UK where “the fear of unemployment and unfair dismissal has led to a system of employment law that discourages small businesses from taking a risk and hiring new staff”.

Home Secretary Priti Patel is on record as saying to the Institute of Directors: “If we could just halve the burdens of the EU social and employment legislation, we could deliver a £4.3 billion boost to our economy and 60,000 new jobs,”.

Dominic Raab called for the introduction of “no-fault dismissal,” in a pamphlet for the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies.

Meanwhile, chancellor Sajid Javid is reported to have unveiled what he called a “shock-and-awe” strategy. The then-Home Secretary’s list included “tax cuts and deregulation on workers’ rights, scrapping automatic enrolment into pensions and ditching environmental regulations”.

What might they do?

The first moves towards importing US labour standards to the UK could come quickly.

The Conservatives have been clear that their top priority on returning to government and leaving the EU would be a trade deal with the US.

The US has openly stated that it wants to lower safety standards and other worker protections in a trade deal with the UK.

Meanwhile, all of the rollover trade deals the UK government has conducted to prepare for Brexit contain mechanisms to enforce International Labour Organisation standards on employment rights.

So it is highly likely UK workers will have no way to seek redress for any cuts to labour rights in the wake of a US trade deal.

On top of this, a trade deal with the US might also contain an investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) style court. These allow foreign investors to sue governments for policies that hit their profits. In the past they has been used to challenge minimum wage laws.

What can be done to prevent this?

Loosening the UK’s existing employment rights, which already provide great scope for poor employer behaviour, would give the bosses of these groups free rein to trample over the pay, conditions and safety of their workers.

We need a clear commitment from the parties contesting this general election that they will:

  • defend existing employment protections
  • ban zero-hours contracts
  • allow trade union access to workplaces
  • not impose fees for taking cases to employment tribunals.

And more than anything else we need a commitment to extend collective bargaining in the UK.

Only by forcing employers to the table to thrash out key issues like pay and conditions can workers protect and extend their hard-won rights and protections.

Ban zero-hours contracts Too many workers are being denied job security, sick pay and holiday pay - and insecure work is out of control.