EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

United Kingdom: Latest working life developments – Q3 2017

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Prime Minister Theresa May’s Florence speech on Brexit, the lifting of the public sector pay cap for the police and prison officers, and the first strike at McDonald’s 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 2017.

The Prime Minister's Florence speech

On 22 September 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May delivered her third major policy statement on Brexit in Florence. The speech was conciliatory, aimed at breaking the current deadlock in talks, resulting mainly from the dispute over the UK’s financial settlement/exit bill, as well as the lack of progress on other aspects such as:

  • EU citizens’ rights;
  • the Irish border;
  • clear proposals from the UK as to the future trading relationship.

In her speech, Ms May stated her desire to see a transition period of around two years from March 2019 and offered to pay approximately £18 billion (€20 billion as at 30 October 2017) to the EU to ensure no Member State would have to pay more (or receive less) during the current budget round. Ms May also offered to write legal protections for EU citizens living in the UK into the exit treaty and conceded a role for the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in settling rights disputes. However, there was no explanation of the kind of single market access the UK wants; the UK government continues to be divided on this issue.

Public sector pay cap lifted for police and prison officers

Following months of pressure over the issue, on 12 September 2017, the government announced that the 1% public sector pay cap would be lifted for the police and prison officers. The pay cap has affected the whole of the public sector since 2013, after a two-year pay freeze in 2010. Prison officers are to receive an average 1.7% rise, while the police will get a 1% rise plus a 1% bonus for the year. The government also signalled the ending of the cap generally from next year, with a commitment to ‘flexibility’ on pay for all public sector workers.

The news followed the prospect of widespread industrial action over public sector pay. After the government’s announcement, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, accused the government of trying to ‘divide and rule’ workers. Unions representing prison officers and the police dismissed the pay rises as insufficient, with the former threatening industrial action. The Prison Officers Association (POA) said the offered increase would amount to a pay cut in real terms, with the announcement, in August, being made on the same day that inflation jumped to 2.9%.

Landmark Supreme Court victory for Unison over tribunal fees

On 26 July 2017, following a four-year legal battle brought by the Unison union, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government was acting unlawfully and unconstitutionally when it introduced employment tribunal fees. The fees will now be scrapped and the government has also made a commitment to refund more than £27 million to the thousands of people charged for taking claims to tribunals since July 2013.

McDonald’s workers take strike action for the first time in the UK

On 4 September 2017, US burger chain McDonald’s faced its first strike over pay and working conditions since it opened in the UK in 1974, when around 40 staff went on strike at two restaurants, in Cambridge and Crayford, south-east London. Staff voted in favour of industrial action (with a 96% majority), in protest at low wages and the use of zero-hours contracts. The fast-food chain has been one of the biggest users of such contracts in the UK, although it has recently started offering workers the option of moving to fixed hours.

The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) said staff wanted to be paid at least £10 an hour; with more secure working hours and union recognition. More than 100 union and Labour Party members, along with McDonald’s workers, protested outside the company’s headquarters in east Finchley, London, on Saturday 2 September. McDonald’s said those taking action represented 0.01% of its UK workforce.

Commentary

The government’s weakened position, resulting from June’s General Election, undoubtedly contributed to the softening of its stance on public sector pay, in the midst of increasing pressure and threats of industrial action. Moreover, this weakening, in conjunction with the lack of progress in the Brexit talks, can also be seen to have facilitated the Prime Minister’s more conciliatory tone in her Florence speech. In this, Ms May also moved away from her previous threat to turn Britain into a low-tax, regulation-light economy. This had caused concern in that the labour market and employment rights would be a key focus of such deregulation, and led to a statement in July by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, saying that EU states could refuse to approve a trade deal with the UK unless the government gave assurances that it would not use Brexit to deregulate and lower standards.

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