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Welsh Government ‘should do much more to improve workers’ rights’

10 Jan 2024 7 minute read
Picture by Wales TUC

Martin Shipton

There should be sweeping changes in how the Welsh Government approaches work and the enforcement of labour rights in Wales, according to a major report commissioned by the Wales TUC.

Professor Jean Jenkins, a leading expert in employment rights at Cardiff Business School, has recommended that there should be a Minister for Work in the next Welsh Government Cabinet and that a working group should be established to look at the practicalities of devolving employment rights to Wales.

Employment law is currently a UK Government responsibility. Polling undertaken as part of the research shows that workers are evenly split on whether employment rights should be devolved, with younger workers supporting devolution but older workers opposing it.

While 18-34 year olds support devolution by 48% to 38%, workers over 50 opposed it by 51%-42%. Overall the split was 45% in favour of devolving employment rights and 44% against.

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Unions in Wales will agree a new position on the issue at the Wales TUC Congress in May.

The report sets out the case for the Welsh Government to better use the levers it has to support workers in Wales – through investment in enforcing rights at work, new partnerships with UK labour market enforcement bodies, greater transparency and training.

Prof Jenkins details the challenging realities of work in Wales in an economy characterised by low unemployment but also high rates of economic inactivity, job insecurity and wages that have been stagnant for 15 years.

She also highlights the real weaknesses of the current enforcement of legal rights at work in Wales. Just £10.45 is spent on enforcement for each worker and labour market inspectorate bodies’ capacity ranks 27th out 33 OECD countries.

The report concludes that a focus on devolving employment rights alone is unlikely to result in significant improvements for workers unless it followed extremely careful planning and was accompanied by increased funding.

Prof Jenkins therefore recommends that unions in Wales establish a working group to look at the practicalities of devolving employment rights in detail.

The report’s key findings are:

    • The Welsh labour market is characterised by low unemployment, high rates of economic inactivity and wages that have been stagnant for 15 years.
    • Wages and productivity are lower than almost anywhere else in the UK. Major levels of labour market discrimination persist for Black and Ethnic Minority workers, for women and for disabled people.
    • One in nine workers in Wales are in insecure work. The post-2008 labour market recovery was built largely on low paid, insecure, non-unionised jobs. Outsourcing of jobs from the public sector and the growth of zero hours contracts have contributed to a weakening of worker power.
    • Labour rights are weakly enforced. Just £10.45 is spent on enforcement for each worker and the capacity of our inspectorate bodies ranks 27th out 33 OECD countries.
    • The Welsh Government does not have control over employment rights, but it has set out a clear policy direction with its Fair Work programme and by putting social partnership structures on a statutory footing.
    • Workers in Wales are pro-devolution in most policy areas. On the issue of devolving employment rights, however, they are evenly split. Younger workers are significantly more likely to support devolving employment rights than older workers.
    • Workers identified the most important aspects of their job as security, work life balance and good pay. Fair pay, health and safety and flexibility were flagged as the rights that people were most concerned about at work.
    • There was an almost three to one split in favour of providing more support to workers. 58% agreed that workers needed better protection from unfair exploitation compared to just 22% who said that businesses needed less regulation on employment rights to allow them to grow and create jobs. There was also strong support for a ban on zero hours contracts (55% support a ban; 26% would oppose one).\
    • Beyond legal minimum standards, workers in Wales are often employed under terms determined outside Wales. Frequently this will be under the terms of sectoral agreements and UK-wide collective bargaining arrangements. Understanding the implications of the devolution of employment rights on these agreements would be a central challenge in any such project.
    • Questions about devolving employment rights are inseparable from discussions about funding. More responsibility on its own without the resources to operationalise new powers is unlikely to deliver the kind of changes that workers across Wales want.

The report says It is for the Wales TUC and its affiliate unions to reach a position on the devolution of employment rights. Its recommendations contain actions that should also be prioritised alongside any consideration or campaigns on the constitutional issue.

It states: “It is vital to recognise that there are concrete things that could be done now within the existing settlement that could begin the task of creating better working lives for people in Wales.”

The report’s recommendations include:

    • A Minister for Work in the Welsh Government. Workers need a clear voice for them in the Welsh Government who can operate with authority at Cabinet level and drive the Fair Work agenda.
    • Investment in enforcement. Wales does not have to passively accept the UK’s threadbare labour rights enforcement system. We should better coordinate devolved agencies in this area, work more closely with non-devolved agencies, and strategically invest to transform the enforcement approach in Wales.
    • Overhaul the ways in which employment rights and industrial relations are understood across the devolved public sector. Invest in core training and the development of a minimum standard of awareness of employment rights, labour market conditions and industrial relations across the devolved public sector over the next two years to complement the roll-out of the Social Partnership Duty and deliver on the ambition to use all devolved levers to make work fairer.
    • Prioritise collectively bargained pay, terms and conditions. The Welsh Government should establish a fair work National Milestone to set out specific ambitions in relation to the collective bargaining national indicator, therefore doing what it can to improve the context for better industrial relations.
    • Make Wales a world-leader in openness on labour rights. Rights are being undermined by a lack of data collection, research and transparency. Wales should up-end this situation and develop its openness as a key positive feature of its labour market and commitment to human rights.
    • Revisit the Fair Work Commission’s recommendations on workers’ awareness of their rights. Workers need greater support in understanding their rights – particularly given the emphasis that the current enforcement system places on the individual. We should learn from best practice across the world in this area and provide clear markers on progress.
    • The Wales TUC should establish a working group to examine the practicalities of the devolution of employment rights. Given the unpredictable and challenging economic and political environment for labour rights in the UK, the Wales TUC should establish a working group that examines the practicalities and strategies for the potential devolution of employment rights to Wales.

Insecurity

Prof Jenkins said: “My report is an honest assessment of where workers stand in Wales in 2024. For far too many their experience is characterised by insecurity, stagnant wages, and a labour rights system that provides very little real protection.

“The reality is that many of the laws that are meant to support workers exist only on paper. Very few other countries have such weak approaches to enforcing rights and we need to prioritise change if the vision for a Fair Work Wales is going to become a reality.

“I’ve outlined an ambitious set of recommendations that focus on what can be done here and now in Wales to improve things while also setting a route map for the practical work that would need to be done ahead of any further consideration of devolving employment rights to Wales.

“My sincere hope is that our politicians, unions and employers all recognise the urgent necessity of reform.”

Wales TUC General Secretary Shavanah Taj said: “Prof Jenkins’ recommendations focus on radically reshaping working life in Wales – by investment in enforcement and pivoting the devolved state towards rebuilding the conditions necessary for workers to realise their basic labour rights.

“We’ve been failed by a Conservative UK Government over the last 14 years that has no interest in supporting workers. Unions in Wales will reflect on this important report and will set out our position on further devolution to Wales at our Congress meeting in May.”


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Catherine
Catherine
1 month ago

Let the 44% who think that Westminster, despite all of its history of war, rape, pillage, and oppression towards Cymru and the other nations of the world and the fact that here in the present day, the Tories have done all they can to water down employment law, make it harder for employees to bargain collectively for better wages and conditions, curtailed personal rights and rights of assembly go and live in England. That is the place for them. What they want is in England, what the people of Cymru want is a free country that is run for its… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
1 month ago

UK government are trying to wreck employment laws. They are getting there. Whatever hap[pens a lot of damage has been done by the Conservative Party. Remember P+O sackings? The Tory party all shouty over it? Then swept it all under the carpet.
How many here use P+O?

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