TUC and CBI offer contrasting views of draft return to work guidance

O'Grady
Frances O'Grady, general secretary, TUC. Photo: Rex

The TUC is strongly critical of the government’s draft return to work guidelines and has written to business secretary Alok Sharma stating they are weak and lack the necessary element of compulsion.

General secretary of the TUC Frances O’Grady said unions would not hesitate to tell their members that the guidelines cannot protect workers unless they were significantly strengthened.

Meanwhile, the CBI has taken a more conciliatory stance, neither avertly supporting the draft proposals or criticising them.

O’Grady stated: “Throughout this crisis the TUC has sought to engage constructively with ministers. But we cannot support the government’s back-to-work plans as they stand.”

The guidance’s non-binding nature was a particular sticking point for the TUC. The document repeats the phrase “employers should consider” several times in relation to actions such as enabling physical distancing and providing hand washing facilities. “We believe that this leaves far too much to employer discretion,” O’Grady said.

She added: “We want new binding rules for employers to publish their risk assessment and action plan. We want clear guidance to set out the minimum standards that employers must meet in order to protect public safety. And we want ministers to outline a new tough approach to enforcement.

O’Grady also warned that rogue employers would take advantage of weak guidelines. “Unless the government significantly strengthens its plans, safe working will not be guaranteed. The current proposals fail to provide clear direction to those employers who want to act responsibly. And they are an open goal for rogue employers, who will cut corners and put their workers – and the wider community – at risk.”

Josh Hardie, CBI deputy director general, said that partnership between government, businesses and employees was the “only way to get it right”.

“Lockdown was a necessarily brutal, sharp process, and firms had to wait for clear guidance. Now that’s available, many businesses are expanding operations and safely protecting livelihoods. Restart will be more gradual, giving us time to plan and prepare properly. It’s vital to use this time and the CBI welcomes the opportunity to consult on the approach.

Hardie said health must come first but that flexibility was key in how firms individually responded to the loosening of lockdown: “There are clear lockdown lessons that firms will be looking to for the next phase. Restart must put health first, or it will risk sending the economy backwards. It must continue the government’s approach of flexibility within a framework. This means firms receive clear guidance and can move at speeds that suit their circumstances. Critically, it also means those who have already invested heavily in safety don’t have to start again.

He went on to imply that fairness and sustainability should rise up the business agenda: “Restart should also be phased, built on the enablers of revival: schools, transport and testing; and underpinned by a new wave of economic support. It can be the start of economic renewal – with a shared determination to build-in sustainability and fairness to a long-term vision.

“We are in this fight together, so government, business and unions must speak as one throughout to give us the best chance of protecting jobs.”

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