Sunday, 2 May 2010

Obama Administration Celebrates UK Labour Day by Protecting US Workers

Here in the UK, we're enjoying a long weekend in celebration of the international movement to protect workers rights. The Labour movement (as distinct from Labour, the political party) has had a massive impact on working conditions across the industrialised world, from regulating an 8 hour working day to restrictions on child labour to minimum wage and the right to unionise. Workers can no longer be discriminated against, in many places, on the basis of race, age, gender or (more recently) sexuality.

In the USA, Labour day doesn't happy until the first Monday of September. I guess the good people of America felt a little uncomforable celebrating their freedoms on the day appointed by the Second International in protest against the slaughter of pro-Labour protesters in Chicago. But in any case, President Obama has honoured the true spirit of International Workers day by the simple expedient of taking concrete steps to ensure companies comply with existing labor laws.
In a move that will affect most American corporations, the Labor Department plans to require companies to prepare and adopt compliance plans aimed at ensuring they do not violate wage, job safety and equal employment laws.

The effort, aimed in part at reducing the incidence of employers not paying overtime and improperly classifying workers as independent contractors, will require them to document many of their decisions and share that information with their workers and the government.

In announcing the department’s intentions on Thursday, Deputy Labor Secretary Seth Harris said his department wanted to foster a culture of compliance among employers to replace what he described as a “catch me if you can” system in which too many companies violated employment laws.
This is important to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because I think that people in general focus too much on imposing new legislation or regulation, and not quite enough on using the existing ones well. The Bush administration managed to do a lot of damage, in particular to environmental protection and worker's rights not by overturning laws protecting them, but by a kind of malign neglect. That kind of think - non-enforcement of longstanding laws - doesn't often make the news, but it can radically transform the landscape in insidious ways.

And secondly because I think that some of the tactics this reform is aimed at, for instance, treating people who are essentially full time, permanent workers as contractors to avoid offering them benefits, are a small part of the reason why the recovery has so far been slow to result in much job creation. If employers genuinely don't feel ready to hire again, and feel nervous of commitment in an unstable economy that's perhaps understandable - but it isn't a license to ignore the law.

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