On June 14th 2019, a group of academics, union representatives, civil society organisers, and members of food-related NGOs and think tanks gathered in Bristol along with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Professor Hilal Elver. The intention was to look closely at the condition of work and workers behind the UK food system. Throughout the day, we shared testimonies, experiences and accounts concerning the main challenges and obstacles faced by workers from farm to fork, including beyond the boundaries of the United Kingdom. We discussed trafficking, modern slavery, low wages, availability, technological innovation, migration, and several other issues that affect and characterize the life and the future of people who make our food possible. We have closely followed the ongoing conversations around the UK Food Strategy, including a consultation that opened just last week, along with the parliamentary debate around the Agricultural Bill and the proposals on the new post-CAP domestic settlement for agriculture. We have also been particularly attentive to the increase in household food insecurity in the country, in particular among farmworkers, farmers and workers within the food sector. It is striking that hunger, obesity and malnutrition are increasingly felt among those who produce and transform food.
In light of our research, experiences and conversations, we have listed below some of the main conclusions arising from our workshop. There is no food without labour, and because a healthy and justly rewarded workforce is essential to a sustainable food system, we consider that these elements should inform the whole process of the UK food strategy. When it comes to labour, the future of food is not only about a skilled workforce that knows how to use technology. It is about: an integrated approach and greater coordination within the food system; attention to the bottlenecks; a broad notion of food workers; intersectionality; transparency and visibility; protection, respect and fulfilment of the workers’ human and labour rights; access to justice and reliable enforcement; and fair access and use of technological innovation.(more…)
Don Lane was a DPD courier, whose written contract described him as an ‘independent contractor’, aiming to ensure that he was neither an ‘employee’ nor a ‘worker’ and therefore was not entitled to the legal rights such as protection against dismissal, the national living wage, paid holidays, or even statutory sick pay. He suffered from diabetes and, having already been fined £150 for attending a hospital appointment earlier in the year, died in January 2018 after working through the Christmas season despite illness. His employers knew that he had suffered from a diabetic collapse at work but adopted a system which strongly discouraged him taking any time off for sickness: no income for sick leave and, worst of all, fines. The media has documented other examples of the abusive treatment of ‘gig’ workers in courier companies such as Hermes and Amazon.
While the Government says it is contemplating ‘the single largest shift in employment status since the Employment Rights Act in 1996’, its focus is on clarifying rather than extending its ambit. The reason seems to lie in its endorsement of the ‘flexibility’ of the current UK labour market, following Taylor’s lead, enabling individuals and employers ‘to make the choices that are right for them’. The notion that such choices are structurally constrained is ignored; rather the blame is laid at the door of the exceptional ‘bad’ employer. While some improvements are contemplated, they do not broaden the scope of access to statutory rights at work in a way that would have helped Don Lane or will prevent other forms of abuse. (more…)
The key words in the recent White Paper,Legislating for the United Kingdom’s Withdrawal from the European Union, are ‘certainty’ and ‘clarity’ in the interests of a ‘smooth and orderly Brexit’, repeated in the forewords and the text. To that end, the envisaged Great Repeal Bill (GRB) will initially convert the existing acquis of EU law into domestic law, including directly effective EU laws, such as Article 157 of the TFEU on equal pay. Also in order ‘to maximise certainty’ the meaning of EU-derived law will be determined ‘by reference to’ – note the vague words – the case law of the Court of Justice (ECJ) existing on the date of Brexit. This means, the White Paper happily explains in a user-friendly example in a shaded box, that workers’ rights will ‘continue to be available’ after Brexit, giving ‘certainty to service providers and users, as well as employees and employers’. In this way the GRB will apparently deliver on the Prime Minister’s promise in October last year that workers’ rights ‘will continue to be guaranteed in law’ post-Brexit.
Despite being thin on the detail of the GRB, so far all appears so good. But scratch the surface and things are not so simple underneath. (more…)
It is now pretty well-known that most of the employment rights in the UK are guaranteed by EU law—the principal exceptions are unfair dismissal and the national minimum wage —as I explained in a recent advice for the TUC. UK legislation on race discrimination, sex discrimination, equal pay and disability discrimination may have pre-dated EU Directives in these areas, but EU law led to protection against other forms of discrimination, such as detrimental treatment owing to age, sexual orientation and religion and belief. Over the years EU law has greatly supplemented or overwritten the domestic regime, almost always in favour of workers’ rights – removing limits on damages, recognising that pregnancy discrimination did not need a comparator, changing rules on the burden of proof, allowing equal pay claims for work of equal value, protecting against harassment and post-employment victimisation. I could go on.
Now extending far beyond discrimination, the EU-guaranteed rights include almost all the working time protections, including paid annual leave and limits on working hours; the protection of agency, fixed-term and part-time workers; rights on the transfers of an undertaking (extremely significant in a world dominated by out-sourcing); many rights to information and collective consultation; the most important health and safety regulations; the right to a written statement of terms of employment; protections in insolvency derived from the EU Insolvency Directive, which led to important extensions to the state guarantee of pension benefits and protection of other claims where the employer is insolvent (no doubt to be in play in relation to British Home Stores); and EU data protection law, the driving force behind the Information Commissioner’s Employment Practices Code, providing some controls over the monitoring and surveillance of workers. (more…)