More employment laws will not improve justice at work

The cause of justice at work will not be best served by introducing new employment laws in the near future, a leading industrial relations expert has argued.

Instead, new policy initiatives aimed at encouraging employers to comply with existing laws and actively pursue a ‘fairness at work’ agenda are needed.

In a paper published today, Professor Paul Edwards, from the Industrial Relations Research Unit at Warwick Business School, said the potential of new employment rights to increase justice has not been fully realised.

This is because the assumption has been that if you legislate for something then it happens automatically, he argues.

“There is now increasing evidence that the amount of control people have over their work is falling, they work harder, are subject to closer monitoring, and are discontented with both pay and job influence.

“At the same time, far too many employers are trapped in low-skill, low-productivity business models. What seems to be happening is that employers either comply minimally, or ignore the law altogether as too difficult. The full potential of these laws both to increase justice and boost productivity thus goes unrealised.”

Enforcing employment laws properly is part of the answer, but encouraging employers voluntarily to see the organisational benefits of justice is more important, the paper argues.

It calls for a package of initiatives designed to build a ‘community of interest’ around good employment standards and the principles of good work. These would not be imposed on employers, but would try to involve them in sharing good practice.

Specific reforms include:

  • More pro-active advice: Rather than merely help firms comply with the law, state agencies should emphasise good practice.
  • Support for local initiatives: Some sectors, especially low-paying ones, often contain firms with the will to improve wages and conditions but they are locked in intense competition.
  • Sector forums: They are most needed where collective employer organisation is weak. They would aim to encourage employers to talk about ‘what works’ for employment relations.

Edwards said: “It is not that employers lack the will to increase justice. It is more that the means of doing it are not well known, and there are few ways of making it better known.

“If you run a small business, without an HR department, the thing that is most likely to help you improve the quality of work you offer is not a complex new law with 100 pages of explanatory guidance, but a meeting with people in much the same boat and your own workers.”

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