Grangemouth – What Role Employment Law?
Nearly a month on, I find myself wondering what lessons can be learnt from the whole Grangemouth saga.
The good news is that at least a significant portion of the jobs will be saved. Closure would have sent to the grave yet more of our proud industrial heritage.
Beyond that much has been talked about. Issues range from botched union tactics, to global capitalism which puts profit above local communities and livelihoods. There were also wider calls for the need to re-nationalise key assets, and even whether an independent Scotland would have made the situation better or worse.
But what I have not heard about in any of the debate, and what interests me as an employment lawyer, is where does employment law fit into the story? You would have thought it would play a big part – but does it?
Employment law regulates rules and relationships between employers and employees. It is based on the principle that the relationship is not an equal one and that employees need a certain element of protection. In the old days, based on the concept of master and servant, that meant precious little. In more recent times, there has been much more protection from dismissal and discrimination, on working hours, pay etc. These are rights which affect workers as individuals.
Employment law also sets out the rules of engagement for workers organised as a group. It governs the relationship between workers’ representatives – the trades’ unions – and their employers. Employees have certain protection when they go out on strike, and there are rules about how unions are organised and how they run ballots.
Some argue that the rise of individual employment rights has undermined the effectiveness of collective action. This is because the more workers are protected individually, the less protection they need as an organised group. Perhaps. Or it could be that there is simply more focus on individual employment rights when collective action is less effective – there are far fewer discrimination claims in European Union countries which have stronger unions, such as Germany or France.
But whatever the balance between collective rights and individual rights in employment law, they only “kick in” when you have a job in the first place. What they do not do is give you an economic right to a job, a right to earn a living.
And this brings us back to Grangemouth. The employees were negotiating from the point of view that they had a job, and could bargain on employment terms. But if there are no jobs to go to, there is nothing to negotiate. Employment law as we know it operates where there are jobs: beyond that is politics and global economics.
Yet that is not to say minimum employment terms and pay should be sacrificed to keep jobs at any cost. The argument is about the balance between the two. So maybe our long earned employment law rights have a part to play after all?