Rightless Workers

Fingers and toes tightly crossed it looks like we are finally exiting the coronavirus lockdown once and for all. We’ve been here before but this time, with the vaccine roll out, we have room for optimism. Probably more than most, I’ve seen all sides of the pandemic. As an Environmental Health Practitioner, experienced in public health and epidemiology, I had my own opinions on how the pandemic has been managed. As a hospitality director I saw at first hand the havoc wreaked on lives and livelihoods, not only friends and work colleagues, but also the ones that used my hotels under Government support; the homeless, the refugees, the domestic abuse survivors, all with harrowing stories.

With light at the end of the tunnel, to paraphrase Churchill, we can allow ourselves a brief moment of joy but most of us are under no illusion of the long recovery ahead. This is especially the case for hospitality where 10 year recovery programmes are being openly discussed. But what about the workers?

Many will be coming out of furlough, pick up where they left off and start rebuilding their lives but the Job Retention Scheme (JRS), as furlough is officially known, didn’t retain a significant number of jobs. The scheme, while an absolute lifeline, was unpredictable and chaotic; scaling back, scaling up again, plans to remove it only to be reinstated again.

The inconsistency placed businesses in an impossible position. Some cash flows were so badly hit there was no room for manoeuvre. In September, when furlough was to be scaled back to 70% with employers obliged to top up to 80%, this was too much for many businesses. Coupling this with the costs of employment not covered by furlough led to decisions in August to make redundancies. They were deep, fast and came in multiple waves.

By way of real example, one hotel had a payroll of 68 and it’s now 16, another had 75 and it’s now 5. Rishi Sunak’s Job Support Scheme (JSS) announced in the Winter Economy Plan was intended to replace JRS. It was to be payable to businesses who employed people doing ‘viable jobs’. This was not going to help businesses that had no viable work to give so the redundancies continued.

Then, on a Saturday night on the last day of October it was announced the JSS was to be halted and full 80% furlough reinstated. Good news for those still on furlough and their employers, but too late for the many thousands who had been made redundant during this uncertain and chaotic time.

With the hardest hit parts of the economy now beginning to recover many of those made redundant will be seeking re-employment, often returning to the same employer and often to resume the job from which they were dismissed. This is great news for the worker who can pick up where they left off and rebuild their career. But there is a difference. In the eyes of employment law they will be new employees and this can make a big difference when it comes to their access to employment rights.

Even though some may have been made redundant from the workplace a matter of months ago and will be resuming their old job, their dismissal by way of redundancy will mean they will have to wait for 2 years before they can begin to accrue redundancy pay rights, 2 years before they have a right not be unfairly dismissed and 2 years before they have many other rights enshrined in the Employment Rights Act 1996.

Due to no fault of their own, and arguably due to the chaotic, inconsistent, stop-start way the JRS was administered many re-employed workers, who previously had these basic employment rights will be rightless.

Let me be clear, the JRS was, and is, an absolute lifeline for many businesses and workers. It isn’t the scheme, it’s the way it was administered that has led to a ticking time bomb leaving workers with vastly reduced statutory employment rights. JRS principles are sound in that they replaced wages when workers were prevented from working due to Government action to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. However, with the lockdown lifting there must be debate on how workers made redundant due to Government action should be given back some or all of the rights they previously would have retained had they remained employed.

Richard Short – May 2021

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