Labour must champion workplace rights

By Adam Peggs

Britain’s rainy summer has taken an unexpected turn this week with a heatwave intense enough to leave many of us struggling to manage our daily activities. This past Sunday saw the hottest day of the year so far with a peak of 31.6 degrees and the week has repeatedly seen temperatures reaching or exceeding 30 degrees. While this has been good news for those off on summer staycations, for the many who find themselves working outdoors, in crowded workplaces or poorly ventilated offices we’ve seen a different story: one of thirst, fatigue and worse for many workers.

In these circumstances, it has been welcome to see Shadow Employment Secretary Andy McDonald announce backing for new workplace rights to protect against extreme heat. The package of measures includes introducing flexibility to allow home working where possible, regulations on outside working and requiring indoor spaces to be kept well ventilated.  

A more significant step includes the proposal for a “maximum working temperature”, following on from other countries such as Germany and Spain. Concluding the announcement, McDonald argued that due to “the dangers of working in heat, there should be a maximum working temperature… working people must not be exposed to dangerous conditions that threaten their health and wellbeing.”

The policy closely echoes Labour’s 2019 manifesto demand for a maximum working temperature, an idea championed by Jeremy Corbyn in his initial bid for the leadership. Notably absent though is the specific 30-degree limit favoured by Corbyn and being campaigned for by the TUC (though this specific also failed to make its way into Labour’s last manifesto).

Despite rumours that McDonald could be reshuffled out of his role due to apparently insufficient visibility, the Shadow Employment Secretary has been amongst the most vocal on the frontbench and has developed policy which would concretely advance labour rights. This week’s policy intervention comes alongside recent announcements from McDonald to implement a right to work from home, a right to flexible working and a right to ‘disconnect’ from work emails and other related communications – the latter of which was advocated by Becky Long-Bailey last February.

The recent policy announcements should, in particular, be seen as a foray into the wider fight against overwork and for the expansion of free time. Unlike in areas like law and order, internationalism, corporate taxation, and company ownership, these are rare steps in the right direction – even if insufficient on their own. The UK has among the longest working hours in Western Europe and among the lowest level of holidays in Europe, including the fewest public holidays.

While socialist politics within Labour has largely stalled, the drive against overwork and for more much-needed leisure time is moving steadily forward across much of the world. As Ell Folan noted in Novara Media this week, support for a four-day working week has substantially increased over the last two years – up by nearly half.

But while support for change is gaining momentum, the problem itself only appears to be deepening. One report even suggests that unpaid overtime has doubled internationally since the onset of the pandemic, with workers believed to be “working an extra day in unpaid overtime each week.” These figures only demonstrate why new rights against working in excessive temperatures and to disconnect from emails are only enough to serve as the first steps toward a better policy.

There is already a wealth of work on ‘Working Time Reduction’ from the run-up to the previous General Election, including two key reports from Autonomy and the Progressive Economy Forum. To deliver change, rolling out sectoral collective bargaining and using public sector employment and procurement to pioneer shorter working hours would be a start. Clamping down on involuntary overtime and overtime without remuneration, as well as closing the loopholes in the Working Time Directive and introducing new public holidays, would be valuable steps too.

A motion for a 4-day week will return to Labour Party Conference this September but given the shift in the party leadership it is unlikely that the policy will find its way into a future manifesto. While this process could help move the dial, it is very unlikely to be sufficient. Movements pushing for big changes to work and working time will need to achieve more before there is real progress. The kind of far-reaching, structural changes demanded of this moment won’t be forthcoming from Westminster but from workers and movements tipping the balance themselves.

Adam Peggs is a writer and activist based in Deptford, London. 

Image: Workplaces. License: Creative Commons 3 – CC BY-SA 3.0. Attribution: Alpha Stock Images – http://alphastockimages.com/ Original Author: Nick Youngson – link to – http://www.nyphotographic.com/Original Image: https://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/hand-held-card/w/workplaces.html

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts