Labour Research (September 2012)


Difficult climate for equality

The last three years have clearly been a tough period for unions to negotiate improvements for their members. And equality is no exception.

The TUC Equality Audit 2012 — which monitors unions’ efforts on equality bargaining and will be published at this month’s TUC Congress — will show that generally it has been getting more difficult to get employers to address equality issues.

The report is the latest in a series of comprehensive Equality Audits carried out every couple of years for the TUC by the Labour Research Department and updates the last one on collective bargaining published in 2009. The 2012 report covers 36 of the TUC’s 54 affiliated unions, accounting for more than 97% of total TUC-affiliated membership.

Employers less willing to address equality issues

Thirty of the unions answered a direct question on whether it had got more or less difficult in the last couple of years to get employers to address equality issues in the workplace. The majority, 17 unions, said it had become more difficult, with just four saying it had got less difficult and 10 saying it had stayed the same.

This is a different picture from that revealed in the 2009 TUC Equality Audit, when unions were fairly evenly mixed on whether it had become more or less difficult, and half said it had stayed the same.

On the upside, the improved equality legislation over the last decade or so — still largely in place at the time of the Audit — has continued in some cases to allow unions to put pressure on employers to do more to address equality at work. Maritime union Nautilus International, for example, says it has become easier to discuss equality because of the “increased awareness of employers of the legal requirements”.

However, in most cases this is outweighed by the economic crisis, austerity and public sector spending cuts, giving employers a reason — or excuse — to avoid equality improvements. The CWU communications union says that, “in the face of austerity, companies see equality as an easy target.” And shop workers’ union Usdaw says that “store budgets are under pressure and this has led to the focus shifting away from the needs of employees to the needs of the business”.

On top of this is the less positive political climate created since the replacement of the Labour government by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, with its emphasis on cutting so-called burdens on business. Public services union UNISON points out that “the coalition policies … and so-called Red Tape Challenge is undermining fairness, equality and rights of workers”. In a similar vein, general union Unite’s perception is that “employers feel more supported with the coalition government to attack workers’ rights. Also, many employers are focused elsewhere and they do not see equality as a priority.”

The CSP physiotherapists’ union spells out how the two sides of the story are affecting negotiations in the NHS: “The Equality Act and the fact that we deal with NHS employers … means that equalities issues are on the agenda [but] the need for efficiency savings means that any improvements have to be cost neutral so makes it difficult to get improvements above and beyond the need for legal compliance.”

Some unions say experience varies in different sectors in which they organise. The GMB general union, for example, finds that the public sector is the most difficult one in which to get employers to address equality issues as “employers are feeling confident, even ‘gung ho’, in challenging the trade union role in the workplace.” For the Musicians’ Union, on the other hand, the higher level of equality legislation relating to the public sector still makes it an easier place to negotiate over equality than in the private sector.

The RMT transport union, says it is most difficult to engage with employers in the sectors where the union is less organised, such as road and sea transport, because “the union has less power of persuasion and employers see any unnecessary (that is, not statutory minimum) provision as an additional cost”. In the rail industry, on the other hand, the union is well organised and is in a position to negotiate better deals.

But worryingly the largest union, Unite, says negotiating over equality has become more difficult in all sectors, “even in some of the well organised workplaces.”

Equality policies diluted

Two in five unions cited examples of equality policies being diluted as a result of current economic pressures and the more difficult negotiating climate. UNISON, for example, reports that there has been “a reduction in meaningful Equality Impact Assessments being completed and equality objectives are being diluted.”

In other cases, although equality policies have not actually been watered down, there have been problems in practice with their implementation. This seems to particularly affect workers’ access to flexible working.

A supplementary survey of workplace reps for the Audit found that three in 10 reps thought that it had got harder to access flexible working, while only one in 10 said it had got easier.

Reports on dilution of policies and practices

AEP (educational psychologists)

Changes to occupational sick pay; tightening of policies on how and when leave can be taken; changes to car allowances, which has been particularly detrimental to solitary workers who are disabled or female.

BSU (building society)

Branch network staff wishing to go part time (usually for caring reasons) are often initially being told they have to work all day Saturday to secure a change in hours.

CWU (communications)

In some organisations, workers who have disability issues have had a tendency to be managed out of the organisation.

Cases and examples of bad practice have been sent to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

NASUWT (teachers)

Under the coalition, the Department for Education has cancelled all social partnership structures in education, diluted its guidelines on bullying and failed to carry forward the agreement on recording incidents of bullying and harassment.

NUJ (journalists)

Many policies still remain on paper but implementation is getting harder as managements and NUJ chapels concentrate on cuts in staff numbers and wages.

PCS (civil servants)

The Forestry Commission has cut the period allowed for career breaks from five years to two.

Elsewhere staff have been refused permission to work term-time only.

The union has also met with attacks on trade union facility time and on trade unionists’ time off to attend courses.

RMT (transport)

A train operating company in the south east is systematically withdrawing flexible working arrangements even where they are longstanding and essential to those employees with care responsibilities.

UCU (university and college lecturers)

Employers are not undertaking equality impact assessments and this requirement is now being diluted in the Public Sector Equality Duty.

UNISON (public services)

There has been a reduction in meaningful Equality Impact Assessments being completed and equality objectives are being diluted.

Updated guidance on equality

However, unions have not let equality slip off the bargaining agenda, despite the tougher climate. The TUC Equality Audit finds that its affiliates have been busy issuing new or updated guidance across at least 80 detailed equality areas, and it documents some significant negotiated improvements over the past two years. Between them, the 36 unions reported advances in all areas covered by the Audit.

The issue on which unions have most commonly issued guidance for negotiators in the past three years is flexible working and work-life balance. While the law has provided a platform for improvements in this area, and the government proposes to extend the statutory right to request to all employees with 26 weeks’ service in 2014, the report says “it is evident that unions have been keen to seek enhanced workplace agreements on this now”.

One area which appears to have stepped up the list of union priorities since the 2009 TUC Equality Audit is disability, on which three in five unions now have up-to-date guidance or materials for their officers and reps. It is now the second most widespread subject for attention across the unions out of 12 broad equality areas, compared to eighth in 2009.

Equality legislation has also been a subject on which many unions have issued guidance, in particular providing materials to keep officers and reps up-to-date with the recent Equality Act and revised Public Sector Equality Duty that has extended the previous public duties’ requirements to all protected characteristics, such as gender and race.

A busy area for unions is working parents and parents-to-be, and guidance has been produced covering maternity leave and pay, paternity leave and pay, childcare support and parental leave. The Audit report suggests that some of the new or updated materials in this area have been driven by the implementation of the regulations relating to Additional Paternity Leave and Pay in April 2011. (This allows a mother to transfer some maternity leave and pay to the father or her partner.)

Union success in negotiations

The area where most unions report that they have achieved negotiated success in the last three years is around women’s pay. The most common agreements involve either securing employers’ agreement to carry out equal pay audits and/or to take steps to improve the pay of the lowest paid, predominantly women. Equal pay has remained unions’ stand-out equality bargaining priority over the last three years, as it was in the previous four.

A significant number of unions, almost half, have reached new agreements with employers on age-related issues since 2009, some of which were in response to the removal of the statutory Default Retirement Age (DRA) in 2011.

A similar proportion has reached agreements with employers on disability, notably around reasonable adjustments. However, a number of unions suggested disabled workers are being targeted for redundancy or are suffering particular disadvantages from cost reduction exercises. The CWU communications union, for example, says that, “in some organisations, workers who have disability issues have had a tendency to be managed out of the organisation”.

Unions have had a reasonable degree of success on flexible working too, with 46% reporting that they have achieved better-than-statutory agreements, particularly in terms of widening the eligibility criteria for requesting flexible working beyond parents and carers. Again, however, this success needs to be balanced against the examples and views expressed by unions that suggest it is getting harder to access flexible working in practice in some workplaces as a result of workforce reductions and a more insecure economic environment.

This information is copyright to the Labour Research Department (LRD) and may not be reproduced without the permission of the LRD.