Why Labour’s workers’ rights plans threaten The Guardian and BBC

keir starmer
Sir Keir Starner has warned his party's employment overhaul will be on a scale 'not attempted for decades' - ANDY RAIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

After Polly Toynbee attended the Labour conference in October, her dispatch on Sir Keir Starmer’s planned job reforms was gushing.

Labour will “make work pay”, the Guardian columnist wrote in the newspaper, adding: “This is tougher stuff than Blair and Brown ventured ahead of their election.”

Yet executives at the Guardian, which itself relies on casual contracts with freelance workers, will be less enthused by the reforms.

Nor will bosses at the BBC and a host of other organisations that face higher tax bills and heavy bureaucracy if Labour pushes ahead with its plans, which include giving new recruits default workers’ rights from the get-go.

Many freelancers at the state-owned broadcaster are understood to be hired on contracts that fall just short of the 90-day mark at which workers gain legal rights.

One employee branded the practice “ridiculous”, saying it “basically keeps freelancers tied to the BBC but without the legal rights”.

Businesses across the country that rely on casual workers are growing increasingly nervous about Labour’s plans, which include giving new hires rights such as maternity leave and pension entitlements from day one, ending zero-hour contracts, banning “fire and rehire” practices, giving workers the legal right not to check emails out of hours and increasing the minimum wage.

Sir Keir warned businesses last month that the party’s employment overhaul will be on a scale that’s “not been attempted for decades”.

It comes as a rising number of workers find themselves doing insecure work: 1.18 million people in the UK are on zero-hour contracts, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the highest since records began in 2000. The Trades Union Congress warned in 2021 that nearly one in 10 workers had been forced to reapply for their jobs since the first lockdown.

Labour’s plans will have a significant impact on parts of the media industry, which relies heavily on freelancers and other workers on precarious, short-term contracts.

The BBC outlined new impartiality guidelines for freelancers after a furore over Gary Lineker's social media posts
The BBC outlined new impartiality guidelines for freelancers after a furore over Gary Lineker's social media posts - HENRY NICHOLLS/Reuters

The BBC employed an average of around 1,600 people on casual contracts last year, in addition to its full-time staff of roughly 21,000. It also hires tens of thousands of freelancers.

For many, casual and freelance contracts are an essential way of ensuring freedom and creative control over their work.

Yet this approach, known as “work for hire”, has previously sparked controversy. Hundreds of BBC presenters became embroiled in tax disputes with HMRC amid confusion over whether they should be classed as freelancers or employees.

The corporation was last year also forced to outline new impartiality guidelines for freelancers after a furore over Gary Lineker’s social media posts.

The Guardian too is thought to have resorted to repeatedly hiring journalists on short-term contracts amid difficulties in reducing the number of permanent members of staff across its heavily unionised workforce.

The Left-leaning newspaper recently rolled out cost-cutting measures amid a deep downturn in advertising, though it has insisted fresh job cuts are not planned.

Labour’s proposals are likely to create a fresh headache for both the BBC and the Guardian, as well as others who are reliant on casual labour.

“Overnight [casual workers] could potentially gain a large number of employment rights including maternity pay and other family-related pay, the possibility for auto-enrolment pension contributions… and, depending on how long they’ve been employed, protection from unfair dismissal and a right to a statutory redundancy payment,” says Nicholas Le Riche, an employment lawyer at BDB Pitmans.

CBI president Rupert Soames has cautioned against adopting a 'European model' of employment
CBI president Rupert Soames has cautioned against adopting a 'European model' of employment - Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Peter Frost, an employment lawyer at Herbert Smith Freehills, warns that businesses which rely on casual workers could “take the view that they require fewer people” under Labour’s reforms.

A Guardian spokesman said they employ most staff on a permanent basis but “cannot always predict the exact staffing levels” needed so engage a “number of casual workers who are paid an agreed daily rate, are under no obligation to accept any shifts” and can work elsewhere.

The BBC declined to comment.

Lobbyists have been urging Labour to tread carefully with their changes. Rupert Soames, the president of business group the CBI and Winston Churchill’s grandson, has cautioned against adopting a “European model” of employment.

There are concerns that the introduction of “day one” rights for workers will effectively mean the end of probation periods, making it much harder to get rid of people if they perform poorly from the start.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has said his members will not give Labour a 'free pass to do whatever they like' - Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire

Labour insists this isn’t the case. “Employers can still fairly dismiss people, we’re clearing up confusions,” a Labour insider says. “Businesses want a bit more certainty”.

The coming months will be crucial as Labour officials race to soothe these concerns before their currently strong relations with business start to sour. Labour has agreed to consult on some policies in government first if it wins power, a relief to UK plc but a decision which has angered unions.

Unions are ready to hold Labour to account. Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT union, says: “We will not give Labour a free pass to do whatever they like. We need to build a broad alliance that can hold Labour to their promises and to make sure they deliver a working-class agenda when they are in office.”

Soames, meanwhile, has told CBI members to “wake up, smell the coffee – this is a major thing that’s coming up”.

After the Tories sunk to their lowest level of support in the polls since Liz Truss’s resignation, medialand and corporate boardrooms alike would do well to prepare for Labour’s new way of working.