Penny-pinching bosses are contriving a whole range of methods to make sure workers, rather than profits, take the hit during the cold weather.
According to the Federation of Small Businesses, British employers are out of pocket to the tune of £600 million as a result of the snow and ice, with up to three million workers thought to have missed at least one day of work. And, according to figures quoted in the Daily Telegraph, more than 2,000 companies could go bankrupt as a result of the conditions.
Fortunately for the bosses, they are legally able to either dock pay or holiday time if workers miss work as a result of being physically unable to get to their workplace due to the weather. A guide to “employment rights” on the BBC website — written by Richard Nicolle, partner in Denton Wilde Sapte’s employment practice — says that docking pay is “an option” for bosses, but advises against it on the basis that it is “likely to be seen as draconian”.
A more common response has been to deduct missed days from employees’ holiday time, which large-scale employers such as Tesco, Asda, Marks & Spencer and HSBC have already said they will do.
Unfortunately, there has been a meek response from the trade union movement, with few public statements from key union figures and little widely-available advice.
The RMT rail union has a better record than some. In the heavy snowfall of February 2009, it helped force a climbdown from London mayor Boris Johnson, who eventually agreed not to dock tube workers’ pay. This time, RMT general secretary Bob Crow has commented that “it would be an absolute outrage if employers penalised staff through docking pay as a result of severe weather. Employers that take that kind of draconian action have no place in a modern society, and are a throwback to the worst excesses of the Victorian mill-owners.”
Unions should turn Crow’s sentiments into action; they should create worker-focused Q & As and briefings to make sure workers know exactly what their legal rights are and how to stand up for them if their employers dock pay or holiday time.
Little initiatives such as this can contribute towards the long-term rebuilding of workers’ confidence in their abilities to stand up to their bosses... so that the next time three million workers stay away from work it’ll be through our own political initiative rather than because of the weather.