There were recent mass protests in London by Junior Doctors, over contract changes proposed by the UK Conservative Government.
Hard fought for rights are being cast aside as the drive for "efficiency" in the NHS continues. At present the changes only affect those working in England and Wales, the Scottish Government have indicated that similar changes will not be made in Scotland.
However, when considered in the context of Prime Minster David Cameron’s "renegotiation" of Britain’s relationship with the European Union, it is a chilling thought that there are likely to be many similar disputes to come.
The Prime Minister has made it clear that he wishes an employment law opt-out in his up and coming EU membership negotiations. This would mean that employment protections in the Social Chapter, designed to promote the health and safety of workers, such as the working time directive and the agency workers’ directive would be removed.
The working time directive guarantees terms such as a maximum 48 hour working week and 4 weeks paid holiday per year. There are also sections relating to the numbers of hours rest for shift workers.
If such protections are removed it raises the prospect of medical professionals, and indeed all other workers, being able to work even longer hours than they do at present. At preset, it is unclear whether or not this move would allow employers to ask employees to work unlimited hours or whether there would be some kind of UK based legislation limiting hours of work.
In recent years Doctors have received a supplement on their salary for nights, weekends, evenings to account for the long and antisocial hours worked. This has also been used as a restraining mechanism on those Hospitals asking their Junior Doctors to work such long and antisocial hours. Effectively it hits them in their pocket. The more hours they make Doctors work, the more they will have to pay out in these supplements.
The consequences of the new contract mean that there will no longer be a financial consequence to hit hospitals for making junior doctors work longer hours. In addition the Government want to increased standard weekly working hours from 60-90 per week.
These proposed changes has resulted in genuine, publicly expressed, concern by Doctors with regard to patient safety.
These types of contracts – which place workers at risk in the workplace – will only increase if Cameron has his way on the EU renegotiation. It will not only be Junior Doctors who will suffer. At present employees require to sign an opt-out if they wish to work more hours than the 48 hour working week. In addition rules set down relating to specific limits on hours relating to driving and airline staff.
These are in place to keep people safe. The current law ensures that workers cannot suffer a detriment from deciding not to opt-out of their 48 working week limit. Albeit, the reality is that employers are more likely to prefer and treat more favourably workers who are willing to work all the hours under the sun, they cannot explicitly cause detriment to an employee who is not. This is all under threat if we were to come out of the Social Chapter.
A recent investigation by The Herald demonstrated, via Freedom of Information, that nine out of eleven of the main Scottish Health Boards were still asking Junior Doctors to work more than 12 days in a row. And, no one can forget the tragic death of Lauren Connelly, who was only 7 weeks into her medical career when she was killed in a car crash. It was found subsequently that long hours may have contributed to her death.
This tragedy happened with the protections of the Working Time Regulations in place. Without those protections workers in a wide range of jobs will be under more and more pressure to work longer hours, pitting employee against employee as to who can work the most hours per week.
Employment rights and health and safety protections would be set back generations. Junior Doctors have set the tone but other workers must be willing to carry on the battle to ensure that hard fought for employment protections are maintained, and not lost in a quest by a right wing Prime Minister to please his even more right wing back benchers.