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Labour conference: What HR needs to know


The Labour party has announced a number of policies that could radically change the world of work at its conference in Brighton

Four-day working week

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell announced yesterday (23 September) that Labour will aim for a 32-hour working week without loss of pay within the next decade. The policy goes further than initial proposals put forward by the TUC, which stated that moving to a four-day week could be a possibility “within the next century”.

Speaking at the Labour party conference in Brighton, McDonnell said that progress has been slow on reducing working hours. He highlighted that trade unions and a Labour government worked together in the past to cut the working week from 65 hours in the 1960s to 45 hours in the '70s.

“As society got richer we could spend fewer hours at work. But in recent decades progress has stalled. People in our country work some of the longest hours in Europe. And since the 1980s the link between increasing productivity and expanded free time has been broken. It’s time to put that right,” he said.

Full-time employees in the UK work an average of 42.5 hours – higher than the EU average of 41.2 and longer than in any other EU nation except Greece or Austria, he added.

A Labour-commissioned report into reduced working hours recently found that while a reduction in working hours is welcome, moving to a capped 35-hour week would be “unrealistic”.

Andrew Willis, head of legal at Croner, said that the success of a four-day week will depend on the use of technology. “Whether UK employers will be able to make the proposals work in their organisation will be influenced by several factors, with many looking for new ways to work more quickly such as taking on more staff or embracing more efficient technology,” he said.

He added that technology may not be of assistance in all sectors though: “This may be the answer for manufacturers and other employers that rely on mechanical equipment in their operations. The problem a reduction will cause for other employers, whose work relies on human input like care or counselling providers, drivers or journalists, will not be so simple to fix, especially in industries such as the NHS where the current workforce is already famously overstretched.”

McDonnell said that employers would be given guidance on how to best introduce the measures in their sector.

No opt-out on Working Time Directive

In relation to the four-day week announcement, McDonnell also pledged that his party would end opt-outs on the European Working Time Directive. In the UK employees can legally work a maximum of 48 hours per week, as set out in the EU's Working Time Directive, unless they choose to opt out of it.

The CBI had previously expressed its support for no changes to opt-out agreements, stating that they offer flexibility for both employers and employees.

Willis said that McDonnell's plans could prevent people from boosting their income: "Workers who wish to work longer hours than the current restrictions allow for can legally do so by agreeing to ‘opt out’ of the maximum level. [Removing] this ability to opt out would be essentially tying the hands of a worker who is content to work longer hours," he said.

"McDonnell’s aim of providing more leisure time with 'no loss of pay' for workers may hit hard in the pockets of those who choose, for their own reasons, to work more hours," added Willis.

A fairer economy and business' role

McDonnell again confirmed that Labour would ban zero-hours contracts, and raise the minimum wage to £10 per hour, following on from shadow minister for business, energy and industrial strategy Laura Pidcock’s announcement of a Ministry for Employment Rights at the TUC congress.

Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI, criticised the claims for excluding business from the plans: "Business shares the shadow chancellor's aim of a fairer economy. But too many of Labour's policies would make this harder to achieve, harming the very people it is trying to help," she said.

She added that it must root its policies in "reality not ideology": "A growing economy built on fairness can only be delivered if business and government work together. Yet here was a speech from the shadow chancellor with no mention of the huge contribution business makes, its importance to jobs, investment and prosperity.

"Business has ideas and ambition to match Labour’s. It is time for Labour to root its policies in reality, not ideology. Firms have consistently offered to help shape an economy where prosperity is shared more widely. That offer still stands."

Greater protections for menopausal women

Labour pledged that companies with more than 250 employees would be obliged to bring in new policies to support women going through the menopause. These would include allowing for different working hours if sleep is affected, more breaks, leniency around absence, and better ventilation and access to cold water. Managers would also be given training on how to spot when a woman might be struggling with menopause symptoms.

Shadow women and equalities secretary Dawn Butler said: “This bold policy will support women experiencing the symptoms of menopause in the workplace. Together we must end the stigma and ensure that no woman is put at a disadvantage, from menstruation to menopause."

Philip Richardson, partner and head of employment law at Stephensons Solicitors, said many employers have introduced menopause-friendly policies but others still have a long way to go.

“Forward-thinking organisations are leading the way and introducing menopause-specific policies, as it’s increasingly becoming accepted as an occupational health issue. Many employers also have flexible working policies that may allow women to better manage their symptoms,” he said.

“Not all employers are so supportive, so it’s important for female employees to be mindful of their legal rights at work and understand they can seek legal guidance if an employer is being particularly unhelpful."

HR can help to break the taboo around the subject and roll out training for managers, he added: “Although often a taboo subject, it’s important for employers to be aware of this issue and for women to feel comfortable enough to be able to approach their employer and have an open conversation about their experiences of the menopause. Better HR training for managers is a good starting point, but it’s also important that employers take the time to consider their working practices and making suitable adjustments where needed.”

Other announcements...

Abolishment of private schools

Shadow secretary for education Angela Rayner endorsed plans that would abolish private schools by removing their charitable status and redistributing their endowments, investments and properties to the state. The motion added that universities would be limited to admitting the same proportion of private school students as in the wider population, which currently stands at 7%.

Free elderly care

Labour promised free personal care for the over-65s most in need of it so that they will not have to pay carers to assist with dressing, washing and meals.