Trade unions warn Labour to honour pledges to boost UK workers’ rights

Labour will face a “hostile reaction” from unions if the UK opposition party announces a further dilution of its proposed worker’s rights policy, the president of the Trades Union Congress has warned.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, who currently holds the TUC’s rotating presidency, told the Financial Times there should be “no rolling back” of Labour’s “New Deal for Working People”.

“My message is very clear, no rolling back . . . if there is any more rolling back on the New Deal, they can expect a hostile reaction to it,” he said. “People are not willing to just give up on this or retreat simply because Labour is the only show in town.”

Wrack issued his warning after the Financial Times revealed on Wednesday that Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party is set to unveil a weakened version of its employee rights package to ease business concerns.

Labour first published its New Deal in 2021, with dozens of policies ranging from an end to zero-hours contracts and higher sick pay to reversing Tory anti-strike legislation and stopping “fire and rehire”.

Britain’s main opposition party vowed at the time to bring forward legislation to enact the programme within 100 days of winning power. Labour leads the incumbent Conservatives by about 20 points in polls ahead of the upcoming general election.

The updated New Deal will emphasise that many of the promises will be subject to consultation, highlight concessions made by Labour’s national policy forum last summer, and reflect further changes fleshed out since recent meetings between senior shadow ministers and business groups, the FT reported.

One key change will be that some of the policies will be introduced within the 100-day period only as “draft legislation”, which would not begin the formal process of becoming law until consultations had been completed.

The changes have reassured business leaders that they will have opportunities to try and shape Labour’s agenda if it wins power.

Shadow ministers are now set to embark on an attempt to persuade trade union leaders to accept the revised package, with a meeting scheduled for two weeks’ time, according to Labour and union figures.

They will argue that despite the consultations and revised language the essence of the package is broadly the same as before, they said.

Starmer earlier this week during the Usdaw union conference in Blackpool said: “We will not be watering down the New Deal For Working People.”

A Labour spokesperson on Wednesday referred to Starmer’s comments and added: “The work that’s being done now is that we will be putting [the New Deal] into a form that our candidates can campaign on.”

Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite the Union, warned Labour that it needed to move quickly on Britain’s sub-standard employment rights.

“If Labour do not explicitly recommit to what they have already pledged, namely that the New Deal for Workers will be delivered in full within the first 100 days of office, then a red line will be crossed,” she said.

Other union leaders were more relaxed about Labour consulting on much of the New Deal package.

“It would be normal, and often a legal requirement, for a government to have statutory consultation on its new legislation. The current government has often failed to consult and has been dragged through courts as a result,” said Paul Nowak, general secretary of the TUC, who runs the labour movement’s umbrella organisation day-to-day.

He added: “The unions expect Labour to deliver this programme.”

Labour’s compromises include dropping a 2021 promise to have “fair pay agreements” in all sectors with collective bargaining in each different industrial sector. Instead there will only be one initial fair pay agreement, in social care, which will have to be consulted upon first.

Although Labour will vow to give workers basic job protections from day one of employment, companies under the revised plan would be able to use probationary periods. 

Shadow ministers have made clear that their promised ban on zero-hours contracts will be a right to a contract reflecting a worker’s regular work pattern over the previous 12 weeks.

Tarun Tawakley, employment partner at law firm Lewis Silkin, said the suggested revisions to the New Deal would be welcomed by employers. 

But he said: “Notwithstanding claims that the New Deal is being dialled down, any laws enacted even on the reduced basis speculated on today would still represent a significant shift in the current employment landscape, and a material improvement to worker rights.”

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