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Time for change - is your business ready?

Jonathan Richards, CEO at Breathe

Employment legislation may be about to undergo its biggest sea change in a generation.

When (and if) they’re implemented, a series of reforms proposed by the UK Government as part of its Good Work Plan are set to radically overhaul the way businesses and workers approach modern working practices. Fundamental among these proposals is the recognition that businesses need to do more when it comes to offering flexible working options to their employees in order to help them enjoy a better work/life balance.

At the time of writing, we don’t know exactly which of the proposals will be written into law. Nevertheless, with financial penalties of £20,000 and upwards for non-compliance, businesses - and SMEs in particular - should ensure they’re ready for change, whatever form it takes, and whenever it arrives.

A series of proposed changes

The genesis of the Good Work Plan lies in a challenge laid down to businesses by Theresa May to improve workforce equality by advertising all jobs as flexible from “day one”. Shortly afterwards, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) established the Flexible Working Task Force with the aim of improving the provision and uptake of flexible working for everyone.

Running to 80 pages, the resulting document outlines a series of proposed changes with the overall aim of ensuring “that workers can access fair and decent work, that both employers and workers have the clarity they need to understand their employment relationships, and that the enforcement system is fair and fit for purpose”.

Fair and fit for purpose it may be, but the Good Work Plan has teeth. Failing to comply with the new - as well as the existing - rules could result in substantial fines as well as damage to an organisation’s reputation. Not only has the maximum penalty for “aggravated” breaches of employment rights been increased from £5,000 to £20,000, the government is set to name and shame those organisations that fail to pay tribunal awards. 

It’s important, therefore, that businesses understand what’s expected of them and what they can do to ensure compliance.

Protecting workers’ rights

Much of the Good Work Plan was written in recognition of modern working practices, especially the growing number of people working in the “gig economy”, or on casual or “zero-hour” contracts.

After 26 weeks of employment, for example, workers will have the right to request a more stable and predictable contract, under which they can enjoy a guaranteed minimum number of hours and an agreement on which days they’ll be expected to work.

The introduction of a “Key Facts Page”, outlining information on contract and payment terms means agency workers will be granted greater protection, while the removal of an opt-out option in April 2020 will see them paid on a par with permanent colleagues.

The length of time that constitutes a break in service will be extended from one week to four, meaning that anyone working regularly for the same employer on a casual or part-time basis will qualify for more employment rights such as statutory maternity pay. The holiday pay reference period is set to be increased from 12 to 52 weeks, too, in a bid to improve the holiday rights of casual and zero-hour workers.

On top of this, and in line with Mrs May’s initial challenge and the subsequent consultation, the plan focuses on the need for UK businesses to provide all workers - regardless of their employment status - with greater access to flexible working practices.

Be prepared

Some of the proposed regulations within the government’s Good Work Plan have already been implemented, others are due to come into force next year, while some still have yet to be agreed upon. But there is undeniably much for businesses to consider, particularly in light of the potential consequences of non-compliance.

Awareness is paramount. Organisations across the UK should read up on the new regulations, and continue to monitor the status of those that are still under discussion. Beyond this, all businesses should be prepared, with the necessary back-end systems and processes in place to ensure they’re adhering to the new rules.

Implementing many of these rules will depend on integrating government-provided software and online platforms with an organisation’s own, for instance. This integration should be done as soon as possible, to avoid any nasty surprises further down the line. Keeping information on employees up-to-date and accurate is crucial, too. Given the time and resources it can involve, however, this can be particularly challenging for SMEs. Consideration should therefore be given to consolidating and managing that information on a central software. Doing so will pay dividends in terms of time and costs, as well as helping ensure compliance.

Employment law as we know it is about to change. Every organisation across the UK needs to be ready. Getting ahead of that change is the best way to ease the transition and minimise disruption for businesses and their employees.

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