New rights, new fights?

hands-578917_1920 (1)_editedWe live in topsy-turvy times.

Theresa May has announced that the Tories will introduce 11 new workers’ rights if her Government is re-elected. The most eye-catching of these is a proposed new right to take long term leave to care for sick relatives.

It seems that, if the Tories win the election, this new right is likely to be modelled on a similar policy in the Republic of Ireland, subject to consultation. Tories introducing new workers’ rights based on Irish principles? Whatever next?

In Ireland, employees who have been continuously employed for least 1 year are entitled to take up to 2 years of unpaid leave per person to look after someone in need of full-time care. They do not have to take this leave in one continuous period, but if there are gaps between periods they must be of at least 6 weeks. If they request less than 13 weeks off work, their employer may turn down their request. This statutory care leave is unpaid, though the carer may be eligible for Carer’s Benefit (dependent upon social insurance contributions) or Carer’s Allowance (means-tested).

Measures along these lines will no doubt be welcomed by many people who have, or may in future have, caring responsibilities – which (let’s face it) is most of us.

Many large employers will also be supportive. Sainsbury’s and Specsavers, for example, have both worked in partnership with Carers UK, which has been consistently calling for greater employment rights for carers.[1]

Smaller and medium-sized employers are likely to be less happy, mainly because they will be less able to cope with the disruption to their businesses. Senior staff or highly skilled or specialised employees can be hard to find. Finding their replacements for temporary periods (the duration of which may be uncertain) will be harder still.

Many politicians seem to live in a world where every job (apart from their own) is a simple and unchanging matter of clocking on, putting in a shift – perhaps with a bit of overtime – and going home again. This is far from the reality of most people’s working lives. Effective work depends on effective working relationships – with colleagues, customers, suppliers and other collaborators. Furthermore, despite job descriptions, person specifications and HR departments, in reality jobs evolve organically over time, often as a result of the particular interests, skills and quirks of personality of the individuals involved. In many cases, it is not workable just to slot people in and out of roles as if they were interchangeable pieces in a board game – no matter how skilled or experienced the replacements.

The largest employers are likely to have more in-house resources and more sophisticated relationship networks, enabling them to adapt more easily to greater numbers of temporary absences. However, even they should not underestimate the cumulative impact of losing key people at crucial times.

It is true that employers have learnt to cope with maternity and (more recently) parental leave. However, this proposal will affect a much wider range of the workforce, potentially for longer periods of time. It will most notably affect middle-aged people, who are more likely to be at the most senior levels in the organisation.

After a period of up to two years, many jobs will have changed out of all recognition and many will no longer exist. Even more so than is already the case with maternity and parental leave, in practice it will often be difficult for the incumbent to return to work, when the replacement has planted his or her feet firmly under the table and has nurtured and developed the relationships necessary to carry out the role effectively. It is easy to see how disputes will be generated in this kind of situation, including unfair dismissal, age discrimination and victimisation claims.

If such rights are introduced, it will be interesting to see the levels of uptake as between men and women, particularly at senior levels. If the traditional role of women as predominant carers persists, it could throw a further spanner into the efforts to deal with the gender pay gap and the levels of representation of women at senior levels. Or perhaps, it could turn out to be an opportunity for men to show that they too have a caring side.

Employers of all sizes would be well-advised to think about the practical impact of rights of this kind on their businesses – particularly as regards key staff. Measures to be considered could include ensuring that a succession plan is in place wherever possible and nurturing relationships with networks of suppliers of interim services – perhaps including previously retired members of staff – who would be willing and able to step in for temporary periods.

A cynic might be tempted to say that this is all about party politics – the Tories stealing blankets from their opponents. But even if that is so, employers will still have to deal with the consequences.

An even greater cynic might suggest that it is a way of avoiding spiralling social care and associated NHS budgets – in particular, keeping older people within the bosoms[2] of their families in the latter stages of their lives. If that is the case, it is likely to fail – as the people who are most likely to take up this right will be those who can afford to do so – and who rely least heavily publicly-funded social care.

Whatever the reasoning, it seems that the notion that a Tory Government will be against introducing new rights for workers is outdated – at least for now.

by Rob McCreath

[1] See: The Case for Care Leave: Family, work and the ageing population: https://goo.gl/fic4LO

[2] The reader will readily appreciate that here the term ‘bosoms’ is, of course, used in an entirely metaphorical and non-gender specific sense.

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