Hard News by Russell Brown


Ideology for Evidence

Last week, Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly told journalists that Department of Labour research into the first year of the 90-day trial employment law may have been "set up" to deliver a result for the government. Her only evidence was that unions had, unusually, been refused a copy of the questionnaire and methodology.

Now, a few news cycles on, the research has been published – and it appears that Kelly had a point. Although the initial spin suggested some sort of equivalence in surveys of employers and employees, the reality is anything but.

Appendix 1 of the report says that of 3,532 employers contacted with an initial survey "to identify knowledge of and the prevalence of trial periods, rest and meal breaks and breastfeeding breaks and facilities among employers," 1,391 responded. Of those, 989 were small employers (0-19 employees) who had recourse to the scheme.

From the first sample, 771 (including 527 of the small employers) completed a follow-up survey aimed at obtaining "a more comprehensive understanding of employers' knowledge of the amendments".

You may be wondering where employees – the other group affected by the law change – featured in these surveys. They didn't.

Employees – all 13 of them, plus two union officials --were contacted only as part of an additional "qualitative" element of the research.

Yes, you read that right: although employees manifestly outnumber employers in the economy, employers outnumbered staff in the consultation exercise by 100 to one.

The report says the imbalance was "due to resource constraints". Similar constraints meant that an assessment of "macro-economic impacts of and influences on trial periods, such as the wider labour market, was out of scope of this study."

It looks to me as if an exercise in doing what the notes say – assessing employer understanding of recent changes in employment law – has been hijacked to allow the government to claim that one particular policy, the 90-day trial period, has worked well and created few if any problems. It doesn't show that. It couldn't show that.

And yet it's being used to justify the extension of the trial scheme to all workplaces, where it will affect an estimated 400,000 employees annually (that's the number changing or moving into jobs).

I don't regard employers as the enemy. That would be ridiculous. The enterprise and willingness to embrace risk of employers literally pays the rent of millions of people. I don't regard farmers as the enemy either – but it would be insane to base your fields-and-streams environmental policy entirely on what farmers think, wouldn't it? You'd take some actual measurements.

It's beyond likely that the trial scheme has in some cases encouraged employers to hire people they otherwise would not have hired. In that sense, it facilitates growth by lowering risk for employers.

But – especially as probation becomes universal – it's likely that some employees will change jobs, and then find themselves dumped in the first three months, without reason or redress of any kind. Not, perhaps, at the one-in-five rate found in the DOL survey, but even a tenth of that rate would still create plenty of casualties.

The possibility of that happening will be a disincentive to move for experienced workers with mortgages and families. So, to an extent we can't assess, this is a policy that will hamper the mobility of skilled labour.

A thought exercise for the Prime Minister: imagine your own daughter got a job under your law. The boss is a sleaze and tries it on, or simply asks creepy questions. As a strong and confident young woman, she gives him the blow-off. And then gets sacked. Without reason or redress. (Yeah, I know, it's not gonna happen to your daughter. But try and imagine someone else's daughter going through this.)

It's inevitable that there will be a change in the balance of employment laws – that's the nature of a democratic mandate. In the case of the personal grievance minefield, changes might even be objectively warranted. But some of the changes – including the withdrawal of the absolute right for a union representative to enter a workplace -- are, in the words of the Herald on Sunday's editorial, "disturbing".

Matt McCarten calls it "class war" in his HoS column. The polite way of putting it would be that it's the government looking after its core constituency, at the expense of others.

I'm sure government ministers and MPs don't see it that way: they believe they're doing the right thing. But -- for all that the Prime Minister has trilled that the facts are on his side -- that belief is founded in ideology, not evidence. That's what rankles with me. And that's what should be at the core of the union movement's response to these proposals. It's going to be an interesting few months.

PS: This is, of course, all just a run-in to this week's round of explaining stuff to Kerre Woodham. She needs the help.

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