Newly announced Prime Minister Liz Truss is reported to be considering a radical overhaul of workers’ rights including a review of the 48-hour working week and other legal protections.
The Conservative Party announced Truss as its new leader, beating former chancellor Rishi Sunak, this lunchtime.
According to a report in The Times this weekend, Truss and her new cabinet are likely to look at the Working Time Regulations, which came into force in the UK in 1998 on the back of the EU Working Time Directive.
These rules impose limits on weekly working hours, although workers can opt out of this as part of their employment contract. The legislation protects workers from discrimination if they choose not to opt out, however.
Truss, who takes over as PM from tomorrow, is reported to be considering the employment rights overhaul in a bid to “make the UK more competitive”, but it will bring her into immediate conflict with unions.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has insisted Truss “come clean” about her plans, saying she “should be focused on helping families pay their bills this winter, not threatening hard-won workers’ rights”.
Working time rules
“We’re talking about vital rights and protections here – like holiday pay, equal pay and safe working hours,” she added.
The new government is also reported to be considering reviewing other working time rules including those around taking breaks and how employers calculate holiday pay and leave.
Currently UK workers are guaranteed 28 days’ holiday per year, including bank holidays.
In July, Truss pledged to review all EU law retained on the British statute book by the end of 2023, promising a “red tape bonfire” if she becomes Prime Minister.
We’re talking about vital rights and protections here – like holiday pay, equal pay and safe working hours.
Let’s not forget. The Conservatives repeatedly promised to protect and enhance rights at work.
That promise now seems in tatters.
— Frances O’Grady (@FrancesOGrady) September 3, 2022
“EU regulations hinder our businesses and this has to change,” she said in a statement. “In Downing Street, I will seize the chance to diverge from outdated EU law and frameworks and capitalise on the opportunities we have ahead of us.”
Kirstie Beattie, senior employment solicitor at WorkNest, said the 48-hour week “isn’t very onerous on employers anyway”.
“They can, and regularly do, have employees opting out and working in excess of 48 hours where it suits the parties to do that,” she said. “The opt-out shouldn’t really be a condition of the contract of employment as consent to opt out should be given freely. However, some employers are still making this a condition of the contract in practice. Again, the practical effect of revoking the right to opt out will be minimal for those employers as they’re doing it already anyway.
“The only real practical impact of a review is that currently employees can’t be subjected to a detriment by the employer for refusing to opt out. Withdrawing the 48-hour limit won’t suddenly open up new avenues for employers to treat employees unfairly: they’ll still have an overarching responsibility to ensure staff don’t work excessively in line with their health and safety obligations. In addition, they can’t unilaterally increase contractual hours significantly, or do anything which is designed to disadvantage the employee, without running the risk of constructive dismissal claims. Consultation and flexibility will be required.”
Beattie said that other mooted changes such as reducing rest periods would be “unlikely to be popular with the electorate so a substantial overhaul in those areas by Truss to the detriment of workers’ rights would be risky”. She added that the lack of progress on the 2019 Employment Bill would also come under scrutiny as the new prime minister begins her role.
This includes a right for zero-hours contract workers to request more stable contracts, the right to request flexible working from the first day of a job, stronger protection against pregnancy and maternity discrimination and the prospect of a new single enforcement agency to protect vulnerable workers.
“Whilst many of these proposals are positive and strike a good balance between enhancing workers’ rights whilst not creating too many obstacles for employers at an already difficult time for business, the lack of indicative timescales for their introduction is alarming,” she said.
“Vague statements of intent without substance or any real commitment will offer little comfort to employees who would otherwise be affected by them, nor does it provide employers with any certainty which impacts their ability to forecast and budget for the coming financial years.
“Some allowances can be made for the fact that the government has faced complex political challenges on a scale which few of us will have seen before. However, the new Prime Minister will now be expected to make a genuine commitment to matters which impact the UK workforce, or a shift change could be expected at the next general election.”