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Architects blast Osborne's 'scary' employee ownership bid

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Architects have offered a lukewarm response to government plans for workers to forfeit employment rights in exchange for tax-free shares in their company

Chancellor George Osborne’s ‘radical change to employment law’ would see workers waive their right to receive redundancy payment, flexible working and to challenge unfair dismissals in exchange for company shares worth between £2,000 and £50,000.

Speaking at this week’s Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, he said: ‘Today we set out proposals for a radical change to employment law. It’s a voluntary three way deal. You the company: give your employees shares in the business. You the employee: replace your old rights of unfair dismissal and redundancy with new rights of ownership.’

The policy would be geared towards start-up businesses and SMEs and participants in the voluntary scheme would be exempt from capital gains tax when selling their shares.

Osborne added: ‘Owners, workers, and the taxman, all in it together. Workers of the world unite.’

MJP Architects director Reza Schuster welcomed Osborne’s ‘contribution to the larger debate on employee ownership’ – explaining his studio had been employee owned and controlled since 2007.

Schuster said: ‘Being an employee benefit trust works for us without any dilution of employee rights and working conditions.  In fact quite the reverse.  The point of our trust is to help attract, motivate and retain high quality staff by allowing them to have a real stake in our practice and to benefit from its success.’

Chris Romer-Lee of Studio Octopi – which is set to feature in Buro Happold’s Emerging Architects series with an exhibition opening on 16 October – raised concern over the proposals.

He said: ‘The scary thing about these proposals is that they appear to offer no flexibility for an employee’s changing work-life balance.

‘Changes in personal circumstances such as having children mean flexible working hours need to be discussed, removing this is surely not part of these proposals? The current economic climate means that flexible working hours, though not always welcome, are a solution to holding onto your job and from an employer’s point of view, retaining key members of staff.’

He warned ‘unscrupulous employers’ could use the rules to remove employees in ‘unlawful ways with the assurance that there would be no claim of unfair dismissal against them.’

ZAP Architecture’s Zohra Chiheb said young graduates were already forfeiting basic employee rights ‘in return for the mere “right to employment”.’

She said: ‘Short term rolling contracts, with accompanying poor employee rights, are the norm, alongside working weeks stretching far beyond the 48-hour limit and shamefully low levels of pension provision.’

She added: ‘I welcome the opportunity for employees to become more involved in the practice structure, I believe this is a strong and proven business model, but I think it is a shame for this to be at the expense of our human rights.’

Peter Morris of Peter Morris Architects claimed the proposal represented an ‘insane logic’.

He said: ‘It reminds me of the phrase “to cut of your nose to spite your face”, the nuns of Saint Ebba did this to protect their chastity from invading vikings, only for the church to be burned down to the ground instead.

‘So, what should we do to protect ourselves from a marauding recession? Reducing employment rights will not make us more enterprising. It is a step backwards to the good old bad old days. If the UK was a shop, what should we do to fight off the recession? Pay people less, to sell for less? Or, should our shop specialize and innovate so as to sell what people want and be a world leaders? We have a proud history of employer rights in this country, if we cut all this away, then we truly will be left with a broken Britain.’


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