Saturday, May 21, 2011

Compromising situations

When I was trained to prepare and run tribunal cases by what we in UNISON call my "former partner union" it was the case that a worker could not contract out of their statutory rights.

An employer could only guarantee that they would not face litigation if they negotiated a settlement with the assistance of an ACAS Conciliation Officer. Employers making redundancies needed to be sure that they followed a fair procedure, as even workers who had taken relatively generous severance packages could bring claims for unfair dismissal, requiring the employer to show that they had behaved reasonably.

I have no sympathy for those who complain about the cost of tribunal proceedings - it's a small price to pay for employers to have to justify in public removing someone's means of earning a living.

However, as the decline in collective industrial action saw a corresponding rise in tribunal litigation, successive Governments have taken various steps to reduce the caseload of tribunals - all of them to the detriment of workers' interests.

One of the earliest such steps was the introduction - almost twenty years ago - of Compromise Agreements. These Agreements breach the principle that you can't contract out of your statutory rights and enable employers to bind and gag workers as they are dismissed, provided that certain requirements are met.

Provided that a worker has been advised by a solicitor before signing the Agreement, they can lawfully surrender all possible legal claims in return for whatever it is the employer is offering them.

I am deeply uncomfortable when public bodies routinely require Compromise Agreements as a quid pro quo for the most paltry enhancements to the miserable statutory minimum redundancy payments. It suggests that the employer has no confidence in the fairness of their own redundancy procedure. It also adds a cost of £350 plus VAT to each dismissal.

Where the Union - to help members gain access to what little severance they may be receiving - puts members in touch with our solicitors, we end up assisting in the administration of job losses which we ought to be resisting.

Given that an employer which believed itself to be acting fairly ought not to need to protect itself with Compromise Agreements with redundant employees, perhaps our Union ought not to be assisting in the administration of a process which is entirely about workers giving up their rights.

Perhaps we should campaign for the abolition of Compromise Agreements. If we believe that statutory entitlements should set a floor on which we seek to build better terms and conditions by collective bargaining then we should want to see a return of the principle that a worker cannot contract out of those statutory rights.

As uncomfortable as I am about what it says about dodgy employment practices when an employer seeks Compromise Agreements on an industrial scale, I am at least equally uncomfortable about our role as trade unionists in this Compromise Agreement industry.

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

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