‘Rights for Shares’ is wrong for Britain
December 6, 2012 1 Comment
By Alex Bryan
In the Autumn Statement this week, Chancellor George Osborne outlined a series of proposed fiscal measures with the dual intention of trying to rebuild Britain’s economy and trying to hide his failure to do so to date. The overall tone of the speech was of sobriety – the extension of the ‘period of austerity’ for one more year and the acknowledgement of the missed debt target limited the Chancellor’s scope for political point scoring.
Some measures, such as the decision to halt the planned 3p increase in fuel duty in January and the 1% drop in corporation tax, were met with loud cheers from business groups. There was nothing in the speech to convert those who eschew the perceived necessity of austerity (that time has passed), and as such the newspaper response to the speech was divided entirely upon left-right lines.
The generally muted response has not been able to completely protect some of the more controversial measures from dissection however. One proposed measure from the batch is so controversial, so revolutionary, that it could sow the seeds for a complete re-organisation of labour relations in this country.
The plan outlined by Osborne is to give workers the option to give up some of their employment rights in exchange for a minimum of £2,000 worth of shares in the company. The gains made on these shares (up to £50,000) would not be subject to capital gains tax. The rights which could be sold would be unfair dismissal rights, statutory severance pay, work flexibility and some maternity rights. In short, some of the most important ways in which workers are protected.
The idea has predictably been met with opposition from the trade union movement, and, perhaps more surprisingly, also from businesses. Of the 209 companies contacted during the consultation stage of the policy, fewer than 5 gave their full support to the scheme. Businesses said that there would only be significant benefits for unscrupulous employers, and that for good employers the costs of the scheme would at least balance the benefits.
There are two levels on which the proposal is dangerous. The first is the effect it will have on workers. Whether people choose to give up their rights or not, it is not healthy for there to be a significant section of employees who are able to be dismissed, and generally mistreated, more easily than others. It is also difficult to see how regulation could ensure that the employer was not pressuring employees to sell their rights either when the price of shares is high, or when employers simply want their workers to be deprived of these rights. Currently labour laws state that it is illegal for employers to ask a woman if she is intending to have a child in the foreseeable future; that law would have to be extended to make sure that employers could not discriminate against applicants unwilling to sell their rights.
The more abstract problem with the policy is perhaps the most important one though. The very concept that rights can be sold is a vicious bastardisation of the entire concept of a ‘right’. A ‘right’ is meant to be eternal, immovable, something which a person has because their humanity demands it. Whilst maternity rights and right of unfair dismissal may not be universally applied and recognised, this does not stop them from being utterly central. It does not stop violation of them from being a violation of the worker.
The suggestion that by having the option to choose to give up your rights you are somehow empowered is monstrous. Voices on the right of the Conservative Party have been calling for a ‘liberalisation of labour laws’ since the election, and, if this proposal becomes law, they will have got their wish. Too often do those who seek to cultivate private sector growth see the sacrifice of the employee as a panacea.
Thankfully, it seems to be the case that the proposal will not become law; it has too little support from business for the Conservatives to launch it against what would inevitably be a whirlwind of opposition. The fact that such a thing could even be proposed should be enough to worry us though, and with 8 years left of projected austerity, it would be hopelessly optimistic to think that this is the last proposal we will see of this kind.