The employment relationship in Britain

The law in this country has played a significant role in the development of industrial relations, and until the last quarter of the 19th century, it was mainly used to control the labour market in favour of employers. We can see instances of this in the Combination Act 1799 (making it a criminal offence for workers to combine together to agree wage rates or conditions) and in numerous acts before and after this. Towards the latter part of the 19th century, we see trade unions formally recognised by the state.

The Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act (1875) gave immunity from prosecution, for the offence of criminal conspiracy in, "contemplating or furtherance of a trade dispute". Political representation followed with the forming of the Labour party and further "immunities" were granted under the 1906 Trade Disputes Act. These laws had a major influence on the employment relationship until the latter part of the 20th century, and this essay will discuss, in more detail the role played by the law, in the development of the employment relationship.

Background The contract of employment is a contract that is freely entered into by the employer and employee, and both parties are considered equals. However, in reality the employee, who has to work to live and cannot usually negotiate terms and conditions of employment, is in a far weaker position than the employer is. Thus, the relationship is unbalanced and in regulating this relationship, the law is used in favour of the employer. "Laissez faire- let us do as we wish" was the predominant influence of the 19th century.

This "liberalism"(Hyman 1975:132), gave the employers the ability to exploit workers as they saw fit, without government interference and although contracts were entered into freely, they would invariably be on the employers terms. Opposition to this exploitation resulted in increasing disputes culminating in the 1906 Trade Disputes Act. The Act, was based on the idea of voluntarism, and let the two sides of industry regulate the employment relationship (Hyman 1995:30). Moreover, this regulation was without state interference except for the minimum floor of rights afforded to workers.

Due to the inherent distrust of the law, this "abstentionism"(Hyman 1995:30) was welcomed by labour as well as capital. Moreover, the Trade Disputes Act provided trade unions with further "immunities" from prosecution, as long as they were acting "in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute. " and so labour developed a preference for collective bargaining without interference from the law. However, this act did not give workers the legal rights to withhold labour.

As Hyman argued (1975:135) this "laissez faire" and "voluntarism" suited employers as long as they had significant control of the work relationship. This position, unique to Britain remained generally the same until the 1970's. This uniqueness existed because the work relationship in other capitalist countries was regulated without the "laissez faire" tradition, and workers have a more positive right to withhold labour. Whilst the law supported "voluntarism", it was in fact supporting a relationship in which "unequal power prevailed"(Hyman 1975:132), and so was acting in favour of business.

Although the law favours business within the capitalist system, capitalism faces a paradox, if businesses are to thrive and make profits under this system. The workers who are needed to support the system, will also need to be protected from the worse excesses of capitalism (Kelly 1998:56), otherwise the system will eventually fail. Therefore, when the working class gain economic and political power, they then become a significant market for the goods that they produce (Hendy 1993:10).

Due to this contradiction, the laws regulating the employment relationship can now be divided into two distinct sections; employment protection, which provide a basic protective framework for all workers, and those directly regulating the work relationship enabling capitalism to maintain the balance of power in the employment relationship. Employment Protection The 1970s saw radical changes concerning industrial relations.

The manufacturing sector declined rapidly and the service sector grew. By the 1990s service jobs outnumbered manufacturing jobs, with 3.6 service jobs to every 1 manufacturing job (Employment Gazette 1994a). Women also made up 57% of workers in the service sector (Employment Gazette 1994a). These economic changes also lead to social attitudes changing towards women in work, to the point where women today are expected to work to maintain families financially. During the 1970s a sympathetic Labour government introduced anti discrimination legislation; The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 outlawed discrimination on the grounds of sex or being married. The Race Relations Act 1976 outlawed discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, ethnic or national origin.

The Equal Pay Act 1970 did not come fully into force until 1975, this provided for equal pay for men and women doing "like work". Other individual rights introduced at this time were the right to maternity leave with pay (Employment Protection act 1975). This act also established the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). This service was set up independently of government departments and had the task of promoting "Industrial peace". The Labour government at the time may have been sympathetic towards the rights of workers.

However, it is noticeable that the Conservative government of the 1980s did not try to change these 1970 laws; instead, "it was expressed in a reluctance to take legislation further" (Liff 1995:463). This reluctance has its roots in reality, due to the changing composition of the workforce in Britain and the changing attitudes to women, now they have joined the labour market. Health and Safety law was largely ignored until relatively recent times, the first acts were the Factories Act 1844 and the latest act is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974(HASAWA).

The introduction of machinery into the workplace, due to the industrial revolution, and the increasing serious injuries and deaths at work prompted the first health and safety laws. Compensation has been made easier to claim, with the introduction of the Workmen's Compensation Acts 1897 and the National Insurance Act 1946. However, it is noticeable that health and safety at work has not changed much during the 20th century (Hendy 1993:12). Whilst workplace deaths have fallen in the last 50 years, 1800 in 1950 to 250 in 1994 (Dalton 1998), responsibility for most deaths lies firmly with management (HSE 1982).

The Health and Safety Executive is the regulatory body, but is under staffed and seldom visits workplaces. This neglect of health and safety by the law is also reflected in the low level of fines for convictions, in 1994 there were 1429 convictions with an average fine of i?? 2514 (Dalton 1998). Regulation of Employment The notion of "Voluntarism" or "collective laissez faire" was firmly espoused by the two sides of industry, and survived until the 1971 Industrial Relations Act.

This act was introduced by a conservative government against a background of trade unions, "taking more militant action in an attempt to gain real improvements"(Kessler 1992:18). The act radically changed the way governments looked at the 1906 Acts' definition of immunities, and a new era began, which was to bring about change in industrial relations using the law. It was an all encompassing act, which tried to deal with picketing, "closedshop", industrial disputes and most contentiously the registration of unions to be eligible from immunity (Kessler 1992:24).

The act was opposed by the union movement and opposition came to a head with some high profile incidents. The highest of these being the imprisonment of "The Pentonville five", which nearly led to a general strike. However, this Act was eventually repealed by a Labour government, which introduced the Trade Union and Labour Act 1974 (TULRA). The labour government of 1974 came to power partly on the basis that it could deal with trade unions. (Kessler 1992:19) However, this relationship suffered due to high inflation and labours policy of keeping down wages.

Consequently, the new Conservative government of 1979 again came to power against a background of industrial unrest and the so-called winter of discontent. However, the consensual approach to industrial relations was abandoned. The new lawmakers of the 1980s had learnt from the collapse of the previous 1971 Industrial Relations Act. Moreover, they now planned a reform of industrial relations step by step instead of in one sweeping Act and as Norman Tebbit the then Secretary of State for Employment stated, "I was determined first to form public opinion and then to be a little behind rather than ahead of it as I Legislated"(Tebbit, 1988:184).