There’s plenty of evidence that the government’s programme of austerity has hit women far harder than men. So it can only be a matter of time before the sweeping changes they’ve made to employment law have a similar impact.
Part of a long-held obsession with reducing the “burden” on business, the coalition approach to employment law now seems to be morphing into a mantra about “delivering” for small and medium-sized businesses.
As more women than men tend to work in smaller organisations, we can expect the issues they experience – discrimination, bullying, harassment, unequal pay and so forth – to get worse. Women over 50 face additional problems such as a lack of flexibility to accommodate caring responsibilities; not enough decent part time jobs; and pensions so low they cannot afford to retire.
Government suggestions that workers should retrain in order to improve their prospects is less than helpful, given its decision not to extend the right to request time off to train for employees in small and medium-sized businesses “for the foreseeable future”.
In the same vein, the government is about to repeal crucial provisions from discrimination legislation whereby employers were liable for harassment by third parties such as clients and customers. This allowed women who work, for instance, in other people’s homes, to bring claims against their employer.
As for reducing the pay gap, forget it. A recent TUC analysis found that women in their 50s earn nearly a fifth less than men of the same age – the widest gender pay gap of any age group. Yet the government is exempting businesses with fewer than 10 employees from one of the few sensible changes they’ve proposed – giving tribunals the power to order compulsory gender pay audits when an employer has been found guilty of sex discrimination.
Nor do we have any idea when it might introduce compulsory pay audits (allowed for in the Equality Act 2010) although these will be limited to organisations with more than 250 employees when (or if) they ever do.
Even the government accepted in its Impact Assessment that the changes it has proposed to the Transfer of Undertakings Regulations 2006 (which include amending the restrictions on changes to terms and conditions after a transfer) will adversely affect the low paid. For which read women, particularly older women.
Women returning to the job market after caring for, say, elderly parents or relatives could soon be asked to give up important employment rights in return for shares. Although the government claims that the idea is to enable small and medium sized fast-growing companies to create a “flexible workforce”, the reality is that it will allow employers to fire staff in these organisations at will.
Older women should also be alert to the dangers of pre-termination negotiations (originally called protected conversations), when they’re finally introduced. These will allow employers to offer to terminate an individual’s employment, but deny the person the right to use the fact of the offer as evidence if they decide to pursue an unfair dismissal claim at a tribunal.
Employers are very likely to use this new right to get rid of employees who have taken a series of breaks (for instance because of caring responsibilities) or who have accrued employment rights such as the right to claim unfair dismissal.
It also has its sights on another piece of equality legislation – the public sector equality duty. In force from 2011, this provision requires all public authorities (which employ far more women than men) to pay “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination and harassment, promote equality of opportunity and foster good relations between groups.
Perhaps realising that it was far too useful a tool for trade unions to accrue information in legal proceedings or bargaining arrangements, the government has now issued an ominous call for evidence to establish whether the duty is “operating as intended”.
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what the answer to that question will be.