In an open letter to Britain's employers, released as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) national conference opens, TUC General Secretary John Monks has told them to stop exaggerating the effects of red tape and instead tackle the real problems challenging the economy – productivity and skills.
The letter says that employers ran the same scare campaign against the minimum wage, predicting unemployment, business failures and inflation. Yet independent research shows that the minimum wage – which has had more impact than other employee rights measures – has not led to any adverse consequences for the economy.
Mr Monks says that while employers always say that measures will cost business millions, the cost per employee per week is actually very modest – only 9p per week per part time worker to introduce equal rights for part timers and 2p per worker per week to introduce time off for parents and time off for domestic emergencies such as a sick child needing to be collected from school.
British employees work the longest hours in Europe and contribute work worth £23 billion a year as unpaid overtime to their employers. If staff were paid for these hours, the average boost in pay for people putting in unpaid overtime would be £4,400 a year. While the TUC is not calling for Britain to become a nation of clock watchers, it says employers should be more grateful that their staff put in this extra time and should not begrudge modest advances in employee rights.
Mr Monks challenges employers to stop making general complaints about red tape and explain exactly which rights they want to take away from their staff, or whether they want to see food safety or health and safety deregulated.
Instead of "moaning" about red tape, Mr Monks says employers should see how they can work with government and unions "to raise Britain's game" by tackling deep seated problems such as productivity and our poor skills record.
The text of the open letter to Britain's employers is as follows:
In many ways Britain's economy is doing well. Unemployment is at record lows. We continue to enjoy growth. Inflation is under control. The public finances are in good order. Public services and infrastructure are beginning to get the investment they need.Industrial relations in Britain are generally good. 'Us and them' adversarialism has given way to partnership at many workplaces. Many of Britain's most successful companies are proud of the partnership they have with their staff.
Yet we all know that there is much to do. Some sectors – particularly in manufacturing – are not doing well. Exchange rate uncertainties are hitting exporters, agriculture and tourism. The Chancellor has rightly drawn attention to our poor productivity levels compared to competing countries. Output per employee in the UK is well below our European competitors. For many years there has been a national consensus that we need a more highly skilled workforce. Yet still one in four adults has difficulty with basic literacy and numeracy. Too many employees and managers are not getting the skills development they need.
Yet the impression that any impartial observer would get from listening to Britain's employers organisations is that there is only one problem facing British business and that is regulation and red tape, and in particular new measures to protect people at work.
But where is the evidence? Before the minimum wage was introduced, you predicted it would cause massive unemployment and rising inflation. It hasn't.
Similarly there is no evidence that all the so-called burdens on business of which you complain so vociferously has had any serious impact. You say that the part time work regulations that provide equal treatment for part timers cost an unacceptable £27 million a year. But that is only 9p per week for every part timer.
You say the cost of unpaid parental leave is £28 million a year. But that is only 2p per worker per week.
But if we want to talk numbers, how about taking into account the amount of unpaid overtime British workers do? Official figures show that the value of unpaid overtime to British business is now running at £23 billion a year – £4,400 a year for everyone who puts in these extra hours.
I am not for one minute suggesting that we turn into a nation of clock-watchers. Your staff are normally prepared to put in extra effort to make sure their job is done properly. Most people do enjoy their jobs and find them fulfilling. But what we object to is that this extra effort is so often taken for granted, while you still oppose modest improvements for people at work that can help provide a better work/life balance.
I think it is only right that employer organisations should be honest about what they want to deregulate.
You seem to accept the minimum wage now, but do you want to remove the right to take paid holidays?
Are you opposed to letting parents take time off when their children are sick?
Do you think employers should be allowed to treat part time staff less favourably than their full time staff?
Are you against informing and consulting with your staff, even though there is proven business benefits?
And if you don't want to scrap employee protection measures, what is it you want to deregulate? Food hygiene? After how much we know the climate of deregulation contributed to the BSE tragedy? Health and safety? After how much we know that lax safety regimes contributed to the Paddington and Hatfield rail disasters?
You have more of a point when you say that some regulations can be made simpler. We agree that the working time rules are complex and bureaucratic. Yet this is partly because employers lobbied for opt-outs and exemptions – and most importantly refused our offer to sit down and negotiate how these – and other rules – can be implemented in the UK in a way that combines effective protection with ease of implementation.
Frankly few believe you when you say you are simply complaining about bureaucracy. Most conclude that you are simply opposed to decent minimum standards at work.
I visit many workplaces every year, and I have to say that when I raise these issues, it is rare that companies tell me that they do not already exceed these minimum standards.
It is time to switch both our efforts away from arguing back and forth about employee rights, and see how we can work together to raise Britain's game. The Chancellor has already suggested we work together with the government on productivity. There is already much discussion and common work on the skills agenda.
It is time Britain's business started to worry about the issues that matter, and stopped moaning about issues that do not.
General Secretary TUC