Thompsons: May is failing to protect human rights abuses at work

theresa-mayThe government is falling short of protecting workers facing human rights abuses at work, says a report published by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR).  

The Committee has warned that businesses have been evading regulation and as a consequence workers have continued to face serious restrictions on access to justice, health and safety and union representation in the workplace.

The Conservative government has remained deaf to the cries of employees who have been left unable to bring a claim to the Employment Tribunal because of the introduction of tribunal fees. The fees deter vulnerable people from challenging discriminatory employers and have formed, according to the report, “a barrier to victims seeking justice when they have suffered human rights abuses, including discrimination, at the hands of their employers”.

Under Theresa May’s watch, the fees have bred a culture which offers “impunity for employers abusing human rights”, with the JCHR exposing her government as “weakest in the area of access to remedy”. When the Committee met with Justice Secretary Elizabeth Truss, it noted that she “demonstrated a measure of complacency” when it came to thinking about workers’ access to justice.

By criticising the government’s policy on tribunal fees, the JCHR aligned itself with recommendations made by two other committees, for Justice and for Justice Women and Equalities – all of which were simply dismissed by May’s government in its response to the recent consultation on the review of Employment Tribunal fees.

There is an increasing trend of critical Committees being ignored by ministers suggesting government arrogance.

The JCHR urged the government to inform its new National Action Plan with the imposition of a duty on businesses to prevent human rights abuses, as well as making it an offence for a company to fail to prevent such abuses; similar to provisions within the Bribery Act 2010. This would also include parent companies, who – crucially – would have to ensure due diligence processes were in place in both their own governance procedures and those of their subsidiaries.

This may seem a bit removed from your life but human rights includes things like your right to work in a safe environment – free from assault and violence at work – as well as your right to privacy and equal treatment in the workplace, integral freedoms which facilitate whistle-blowing and trade union membership. The Tories are threatening to replace these rights in a ‘British Bill of Rights’, which poses a challenge to all workers’ human rights.

By legislating and enforcing these practices, the JCHR argued that legal remedies would be in place to deter businesses from carrying out abusive practices. They highlighted serious failings in the current system which allow large businesses to escape reprimand, since the focus of a case of human rights abuse is on the “directing mind” of the mistreatment, which is very often smaller companies lower down the supply chain.

This allows the abuse of workers exploited in foreign countries – such as child labour – for the benefit of UK goods and services to go unchecked.

The government, the JCHR report explained, has a duty to lead by example in tackling global human rights abuses, and focus attention and prosecution on the ‘parent’ company. It also recommended: excluding offending companies from all public sector contracts; enforcing mandatory due-diligence reviews; and applying tougher penalties to businesses who have benefitted from slavery lower down the supply chain.

This is not the standard by which all democratic, ethical governments should be adhering to. Baroness Young of Hornsey’s Modern Slavery (Transparency in Supply Chains) Bill, which fills in the gaps left by the Modern Slavery Act 2015, presents one means by which to tackle abusive businesses and sharp practice.

During the debate on the Bill, Lord Smith of Hindhead called for the inclusion of a clause which guaranteed equality in the workplace, arguing that unlawful discrimination is often the precursor to the abuse of vulnerable workers’ human rights; with the end result that workers are paid below the national minimum wage, without proper contracts and put in dangerous working conditions.

With Brexit looming (and the threat it brings to the erosion of health and safety and other workers’ rights), the JCHR said businesses “welcome more regulation by the government, so as to improve the practices of all companies”. It added UK-owned companies should “require the recognition of trade union membership of employees as a condition of contracts with suppliers”, to allow trade unions to play the vital role of seeking to assist the most vulnerable workers and keep them safe from corporate exploitation.

Based on recent experience, we cannot expect any Tory government, and certainly not one headed by Theresa May, to listen to any voices, however expert, that propose improvements which aim to bolster regulation and protect all workers. Only with a Labour government could we expect the kind of change that will lead to a proper recognition of the importance of workers having genuine rights which can be efficiently enforced.

  • Iain Birrell is Practice Lead of Thompsons’ Trade Union Law Group

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