Burden of guilt weighs heavier than red tape

National officer, Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union

Are HR managers losing the plot? I hear the old tunes being played. Legal
complaints are equated with excess bureaucracy. Managers are falling back on
the old red-tape whinges.

The Government is apparently to blame for imposing all sorts of extra
regulation. If the whole thing can be blamed on Brussels bureaucrats, fresh
from straightening bent bananas, then so much the better.

It is nonsense, and HR managers ought to know better. The Blair Government
looks at the law and work in a new way for Britain. The minimum wage is here to
stay and, delightfully, Mr Portillo and friends do not now provide an
alternative perspective on it. Trade union power is not about to be unleashed
on an over-stretched, supine management. The Employment Rights Act will not let
the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) hand over workplace representation
without strict criteria being met. The CAC will also ban all unions from a
workplace if they think the application threatens sterile competition between
unions.

The point is this. The Blair Government is determined to see all of us have
a minimum floor of rights at work as individuals. These rights are to be judged
in terms of individual cases of fairness, with the legal system holding the
coats between employer and employee. The new role for unions is to match
employers’ resources with legal expertise to ensure individuals know their
rights and exercise them.

If strikes are a thing of the past, unhappiness at work is still very much
with us. There are 100,000 employment tribunals a year. It is surely preferable
that unions support people with one eye on the individual’s case and the other
firmly on the long-term relationship within the company.

Above all, the continuing saga of personal injury at work more than
justifies government regulation over safety issues and trade union
participation in the compensation process. Last year, unions settled over
50,000 cases and obtained £308m for members with a success rate of 96 per cent.
Most unions now provide a 24-hour free advice service, way beyond direct injury
cases.

Some unions are extending the benefits of free union legal services to
family members. The Engineers and Electricians union has more than 20,000
personal injury cases underway at the moment and recently secured over £1m for
a roofer who fell after working without safety equipment and suffered brain
damage.

In compensation and tribunal cases, the law at work is here to stay.
Managers should welcome union legal intervention against a background where law
replaces the trial of strength associated with yesteryear’s industrial
disputes. And if their companies have done nothing wrong, they have nothing to
fear, do they?

By John Lloyd

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