Government attacked on failure to protect workers

Trade unions have attacked the government for failing to protect workers from large-scale redundancies.

A call to support a European directive on consultation with workers came after more than 2,000 employees at US car giant General Motors’ Vauxhall plant at Luton discovered in December over the local radio station that they were to lose their jobs.The directive is yet to be voted upon by EU member states. Unless a majority can be reached, the directive will not come into force. Germany, Ireland and Denmark have said they are against the measure.

Trade secretary Stephen Byers said he was reviewing whether collective redundancy legislation needed tightening. But he remained opposed to the directive on Information and Consultation, which guarantees a consultation period before job cuts are made.

Tom Jenkins, head of the TUC’s European and international department, said present laws are too weak to prevent companies making large-scale redundancies without consulting workers. ‘The legislation is not working. it doesn’t have enough power behind it to get companies to consult in good time.’

He said adopting the directive would enable workers to be kept informed of company developments. ‘We will be happy to talk to the government about its proposals, but it will not be an alternative to our support for the EU directive,’ Jenkins said.

The directive requires companies to inform workers and other relevant stakeholders before a major redundancy, and explain why it was necessary. There would then be a period of consultation, allowing unions time to put forward rescue packages or alternatives to redundancies.

The TGWU accused the government of a cynical attempt to divert attention while it tried to water down the directive. It called for the UK law to be strengthened, and said that while companies are required to give 90 days’ notice of large-scale redundancies, in practice many get around this by simply paying workers in lieu of notice.

‘Multinationals with European problems opt for a UK solution, because workers are easier, quicker and cheaper to sack,’ a union spokesman said.

Byers said he was concerned about the lack of consultation before large-scale redundancies are announced.

‘Our legislation does set down requirements for consultation, but I want to look at whether it could be improved,’ he said.

Under existing laws, employers are required to consult employees ‘in good time’ on ways of avoiding or reducing the number of dismissals and lessening the impact of these job losses, although critics claim this legislation is often ignored.

But the CBI, which will take part in the DTI’s review along with the TUC, said the legislation is already robust.

Simon Blake, CBI employee relations policy adviser, said firms must begin consultation well in advance of redundancy announcements, and the penalty for not doing so is 90 days’ pay for each employee affected.

He claimed that EU legislation would be unsuitable for companies in the UK, as the workplace models are different.

‘I don’t think the directive would affect collective redundancies within large multinationals. It would simply extend the legal obligations to smaller companies in a “one-size-fits-all” approach that would be totally inappropriate,’ Blake said.

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