United Kingdom: Latest working life developments – Q3 2016

The Prime Minister’s statements on Brexit at the Conservative Party conference, labour market developments and the latest developments in the junior doctors’ dispute are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in the United Kingdom in the third quarter of 2016.

Brexit trigger deadline fixed

Prime Minister Theresa May used the Conservative Party annual conference (2–5 October 2016) to provide details of the Government’s plans for leaving the European Union. She has been coming under increasing pressure to offer more details about the proposals for departure, beyond her often repeated ‘Brexit means Brexit’ soundbite​. In her conference speech, she reiterated a statement made on 2 October that the official mechanism for leaving the EU (Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon) will be triggered by March 2017 at the latest. Ms May also announced her intention to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act in a Great Repeal Bill. This legislation is set to be brought forward in the next parliamentary session, but will not be implemented until after the formal two-year process of leaving the EU. It will incorporate all EU regulations into UK law as soon as Brexit takes effect, leaving future governments to ‘unpick’ the legislation as desired. The Prime Minister also indicated that, post-Brexit, the UK would no longer be part of the single market. Such a ‘hard’ approach has concerned many and there have been calls for clarification over the form that negotiations will take. Ms May, however, continues to reiterate that there will be ‘no running commentary’.

During the conference, the Prime Minister also ‘firmly and unequivocally’ stated that workers’ existing legal rights will continue to be guaranteed in law, and for as long as she is PM. She went on to say that far from being eroded, workers’ rights would be enhanced under the Conservative Government. Furthermore, she reaffirmed her commitment to having worker representatives on company boards.

In her speech, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, outlined proposals that would force companies to publish the proportion of ‘international’ staff they employ. She also announced her plans to ensure that British companies do all they can to find UK workers to fill any vacancies.

Increase in zero-hours contracts and self-employment

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that 2.9% (903,000) of the UK workforce report having a zero-hours contract for their main job. This represents an increase of 21% on the same period last year, when the figure stood at 747,000. Analysis by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), published in September, shows that the typical UK employee earns 50% more an hour than a person with a zero-hours contract. The median hourly rate for a worker on such a contract is £7.25, while for employees, the median is £11.05.

ONS figures published at the end of July also showed an increase in the numbers of self-employed people. Of the 118,000 new full-time jobs created in the past three months, 104,000 (88%) are on a self-employed basis. Nearly one in six (15.1%) of people with jobs in the UK are now self-employed.

Junior doctors’ dispute ongoing

Following the rejection by junior doctors of their proposed new contract, the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, announced in the House of Commons on 6 July that the contract agreed in May would be phased in over 12 months, starting in October 2016.

On 31 August, the Council of the British Medical Association (BMA) called for another round of strikes. The doctors wanted to stage four separate strikes before the end of the year, with the first planned from 12 to 16 September. However, the BMA suspended the first planned strike on 6 September due to concerns over patient safety. It had still planned to go ahead with further strikes over multiple days between October and December 2016 but, in an announcement on 26 September, it suspended the action due to overriding concerns about patient safety. Moreover, the ruling on 28 September in a judicial review on the contract imposition called for by the doctors’ campaign group, Justice for Health, went against the doctors. 

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