Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 14, April 18, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Coronavirus Pandemic

The Need for Workers to Have a Decisive Say in the Furlough Scheme

The Treasury announced on April 17 that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) is to be extended by one month until the end of June.

The announcement said: "The scheme, which allows firms to furlough employees with the government paying cash grants of 80% of their wages up to a maximum of £2,500, was originally open for three months and backdated from the 1 March to the end of May." To be furloughed means that a person ceases to work, or is laid off, but remains employed, with the government providing cash in lieu of remuneration, as outlined in the Treasury quote. It has been described as "state-paid leave".

It is reported that more than nine million workers are expected to be furloughed. The BBC website gives the following explanation as to how the scheme works: "Under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the government will cover 80% of workers' wages for March, April and May if they are put on leave. Employers will pay workers and reclaim the money from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) at the end of April. They can apply to join the scheme from Monday [April 20]." The minimum time that a worker can be furloughed is three weeks.

According to the website Wired[1]: "Lawyers said that those already self-isolating cannot be furloughed (and must be paid statutory sick pay) until they return to work. Once they return, they can be furloughed. And people who are 'shielding' and vulnerable to severe illness caused by coronavirus can still be placed on furlough."

It will be noted that the onus is on the employers to decide to apply for the scheme and notify the employees. Legal guidance suggests that, at best, it is recommended that companies get agreement from the workers for the change. In addition, the threat of redundancy hangs over workers after the period covered by the scheme ends, particularly if the coronavirus crisis is still affecting society, as looks inevitable.

It is being said in mitigation that changing the status of employees remains subject to existing employment law and, depending on the employment contract, may be subject to negotiation. But the concept of "furlough" has not appeared before in the employment law of this country, leaving the door open for a floodgate of attacks on the rights of workers. Furthermore, as tax research writer Richard Murphy explains in his blog on April 15: "well-advised large employers who know that they have to undertake a statutory consultancy period with their staff on redundancy arrangements will begin issuing redundancy notices to maybe millions of people tomorrow [now delayed by a month], because if staff cannot be paid after June 1 [now July 1] when the furlough scheme ends, that's when notice has to be given and the consultations need to begin. For smaller companies (employing less than 100 people) the date when notice is required is later: they will need to issue the redundancy notices at the end of the month [again now delayed by a month]."

According to a survey published by the British Chamber of Commerce, one in three companies have put at least 75% of their workforce on furlough. It is unconscionable that these workers should face being made unemployed. Among others, the UCU (University and College Union) is taking the stand that employers should guarantee 100% of normal pay and commit to making employer occupational pension contributions in the normal way during furlough. They also propose that workers and their union branches take a stand that:

Workers must have a decisive say in this scheme, contrary to the government's mantra that all that counts is the health of business and the economy, as though workers were just incidental to the well-being of the direction of the economy. This is the perspective on which the workers' rights must be fought. There is a developing consciousness that workers should emerge from this crisis with the perspective that it is their economy and they should be the decision-makers.

Note

[1] For further details, see: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/uk-furlough-scheme-job-protection

Also see: https://www.acas.org.uk/coronavirus/furlough-closing-workplaces

For the TUC guidance, see: https://www.tuc.org.uk/what-are-rules-if-youre-temporarily-laid-off


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