Smart politics keeps businesses guessing

Another week, another drama involving the implementation of employment law –
this week it’s Part-Timers Revisited.

Unfortunately the sticking point this time is of a fundamental nature – just
who counts as a part-timer for the purposes of the directive? The two
definitions on offer are either part-time employees or part-time workers. To
most of us the two phrases are interchangeable but since lawyers have been
involved it has not been that simple. The latest understanding is that the term
employee relates purely to someone on a standard contract whereas the term
worker could apply to a whole range of people – freelancers, contract staff and
so on.

All well and pedantic, but the problem is the Government has not made up its
mind which way to jump. Speaking before a select committee meeting on the
directive last week employment minister Alan Johnson confirmed the Government
had not taken a position yet, and would not do so until the legislation is
before Parliament. This is smart politicking on Labour’s part – by not showing
its hand now it can keep the employers’ organisations and unions in check. The
IoD and TUC, from polar opposite standpoints, have warned about making the
wrong decision on part-timers, but these warnings lack real bite until the
policy is unveiled.

The real problem is businesses are going to be left guessing until the last
minute exactly what they will have to do. This will be, frankly, a pain in the
backside as the directive could either cover large swathes of part-timers or
hardly any at all. And worse still, firms will get just one month to implement
the directive.

The only cause for concern is the gut feeling that Labour, now
super-sensitive to the needs of business, will not risk expanding the remit of
the directive overnight. The embarrassment of getting a ticking off from
employers’ organisations will be keenly felt at Millbank whereas ear-bashings
from the TUC seem to be shrugged off these days. Indeed the TUC’s pre-emptive
threat of legal action if it does not win the argument could be read as an
early admission of defeat.

But which HR department is going to want to prepare for implementing major
employment legislation by second-guessing who the Labour Party does not want to
offend the most this week – and, more to the point, why on earth should they
have to?

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