Fair play or foul on the union pitch

June 19, 1998

The Fairness at Work white paper has aroused considerable interest among industrial relations and law academics in universities. But what does it mean for university workers?

Although there are still areas where the Trades Union Congress will be pressing for improvements (the 40 per cent threshold for a "yes" vote from workers to get union recognition, and not allowing legal recognition procedures to apply to firms with 20 or fewer employees covering six million people are two examples), the white paper promises improvements in the job market where insecurity and minimum rights are the order of the day.

The government has invited views on employment rights for agency staff, abolishing waiver clauses in fixed-term contracts and addressing the potential abuse of zero hours contracts.

Individuals in universities will have new rights including the right to go to an industrial tribunal after one year's employment (currently two years), and the right to proper compensation for unfair dismissal as the government will abolish maximum limits on these awards.

Individuals will also have a legal right to be represented by a fellow employee or trade union representative of their choice during grievance or disciplinary procedures even in a non-unionised workplace. More than 850,000 people in the United Kingdom are on fixed-term contracts. Sometimes it feels as if nearly all of them are in universities. Although the government is unwilling to prohibit waiver clauses, it is equally clear that encouraging best practice to limit such clauses would not deter unscrupulous employers.

Its thinking is to prohibit waiver clauses for unfair dismissal but allow their use for avoiding redundancy payments. It is important, therefore, that views on this be sent in by the end of July so that limits on waiver clauses can be as tight as possible.

The white paper also asks for views on whether training should be among the matters automatically covered by an award of trade union recognition. Statutory recognition will definitely cover pay, hours and holidays but the Confederation of British Industry is arguing against training being covered. Strange that an organisation publicly committed to the objective of a highly trained and skilled workforce should balk at trade union involvement. It is a fact that the most highly developed workplace training takes place in unionised companies, and the complete absence of employee training is invariably in the non-unionised sector.

The new collective rights will also be extremely significant for employees. It will be unlawful to discriminate by omission on grounds of trade union membership or activities, victimising trade unionists will be prohibited, industrial action ballots and notice periods will be simplified through regulations still to be discussed.

The right to extended maternity leave and parental leave will apply after one year's service. Workers will have the right to return from parental leave as well as maternity leave to their old job or a suitable alternative with equivalent terms of employment.

There will be a right to reasonable time off for family emergencies regardless of length of service and employees will be protected against dismissal if they exercise their rights to parental leave and time off for urgent family reasons. Most important, bearing in mind the growth of industrial parks and private-sector companies on campus, where over half of the workforce are in union membership, recognition should be automatic without a ballot.

One area of concern is the future protection of workers when businesses transfer. Thousands of university contract catering, cleaning, security and grounds staff depend on the existing rather weak protections when contracts are changed. How far employers can plead changing circumstances in their businesses and how the government will interpret "more flexible contracting-out arrangements" is not known, but the workers should not be worse off under any new arrangements. Today's campus is about job insecurity. Let us hope that Fairness at Work will give some stability to university staff on the campus of tomorrow.

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Institute of Education student union and a member of the national executive of Unison, the TUC general council, and the European TUC executive.

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