Employment law/management. Coming up roses for workers?

There is little doubt that a Labour government would change employment law. But how radical and swift are the alterations likely to be, asks Danielle Kingdon? Danielle Kingdon is an associate at Osborne Clarke's employment unit in London.

The Labour Party has produced a framework document concerned with employment rights called Building Prosperity – Flexibility, Efficiency and Fairness at Work.

Unsurprisingly, it is a general policy statement and does not set out detailed proposals. It states that “basic minimum standards of fairness .at work” will be based primarily “on the notion of individual rights” and that trade union involvement will be a matter of individual choice. The document confirms there will be no return to the “old approach of trade union immunities as the basis for legislation” and states that there will be no blanket repeal of existing union legislation.

There appears to be a move away from Labour's previous commitment to give all employees basic protection from day one of their employment, but no mention is made of any other qualifying period which would be applied instead. Nor is there any intention to change the current financial limits for unfair dismissal claims.

Some of the more uncontroversial principles which Labour says it would adopt are:

employees to have the right to be “accompanied” at disciplinary or grievance procedure meetings with their employer

individuals to have the right to choose whether or not to join a trade union

individuals have the right not to be discriminated against if they choose to join a trade union

an end to the requirement for trade unions to gain repeated authorisation from individual union members before subscriptions can be deducted through payroll.

Labour has also said it will take steps to protect employees against the “abuses” of zero-hour contracts, the use of franchising to avoid basic employ- ment rights and the misuse of the distinction between contract for services and contracts of service.

Of greater interest is the Labour Party's stated commitment to compulsory trade union recognition for the purposes of collective bargaining on the issues of pay, hours, holidays and training. At the moment, union recognition is entirely voluntary. Under a Labour Government it would be compulsory to be represented by a trade union whenever a majority of the relevant workforce voted in favour of this.

Labour have confirmed that they would remove the current protection for employers who dismiss all employees taking part in industrial action. Employees would be able to bring a claim for unfair dismissal in such circumstances.

The policy document also confirms the Labour Party's commitment to introduce a national minimum wage – although at what level is not specified – and, importantly, its commitment to sign up to the Social Protocol.

The effect of the Social Protocol is that it will force the UK to comply with all existing and any future EU directives which may be introduced under it.

For example, the European Works Councils Directive is not currently applicable in the UK, although it does already apply to those UK-based multinationals which have more than 1,000 employees elsewhere in the EU and at least 150 employees in two or more of the 14 participating states.

It requires relevant undertakings to set up a European Works Council (EWC) or an employee information and consultation procedure.

The Parental Leave Directive is due to be implemented on 3 June 1998. It guarantees all workers, of either sex, the right to take parental leave to look after a child for up to three months between the birth or adoption of that child and its eighth birthday.

The Part Time and Temporary Work Directives are still in draft form. They propose equal treatment for part-time and temporary workers in relation to statutory and contractual employment rights, and the restriction of the use of fixed-term contracts to “objective grounds” and for a limited period. Discussions are also focusing on how to prevent discrimination against employees in flexible work.

There is also, currently, a proposal for a directive dealing with the burden of proof in sex discrimination cases. The proposal does not aim to reverse the burden of proof, but rather to amend it so that it is shared between the applicant and the respondent.

If Labour comes to power, the picture painted is one of a continuing and steady trickle of change as the party pursues its policy of achieving basic minimum standards of fairness for workers in the UK.