Maybe I have this all wrong. It could be that Mr Konstantinos Kalomoiris will one day join the Tolpuddle Martyrs in the pantheon of those who have fought for the rights of working people. Perhaps Billy Bragg will strum an anthem in his honour and the trade unions will stitch his likeness to their gaily-coloured banners; and perhaps a street will be named after him in Islington and a plaque will be unveiled in Transport House, complete with a fiery speech by Tony Benn or Mr Tristram Hunt MP. Perhaps all future members of the British labour force – including my own grandchildren – will give thanks that Mr Konstantinos Kalomoiris decided he could take it no more.
After three slaps on the bottom he took a stand, on behalf of himself and his entire gender. No matter that the bottom-patter (alleged) had worked for 40 years for the firm, with an “unblemished record”. Never mind that she was a 68-year-old woman, who insisted that she had only “touched his back in a caring way, like a mother or grandmother”.
Mr Kalomoiris, 40, has sued the company, John Lewis – a notably tender-hearted employer – for sexual discrimination and harassment; and, as I say, my instincts could be completely out of whack. This could turn out to be a ground-breaking case in the advancement of workers’ rights against the unfeeling boss class. But I sincerely doubt it. It sounds to me like a perfect indication of the levels of barminess now being attained by our system of employment tribunals. The hearing continues, it says at the bottom of the reports, and my first thought is how mad, how incredible it is that this poor man’s grievance – whatever it really is – has come to court.
The hearing continues, while across the country thousands of similar hearings drag their weary length before the matchstick-eyelid tribunals of Britain. Millions of man-hours are wasted, as business people are obliged to give evidence rather than getting on with their jobs. Huge fees are racked up by lawyers and “expert witnesses”, who are called on to pronounce on the exact meaning of an insult, and on all the unverifiable aches and pains and stresses that may constitute a disability.
The total cost of the system has been put at £1 billion for British business, and it is rising the whole time. In 2010, the number of employment tribunal cases rose by 56 per cent, with an amazing 236,000 cases last year alone. Of course there are hundreds if not thousands of firms that simply don’t have the cash or the energy to fight – not when it costs an average of £8,500 to put up resistance, and about £4,500 to settle.
Even when they fight and win, it can be a pretty pyrrhic sort of victory. A small manufacturing company with 45 employees decided to sack an employee who was caught stealing the company’s booze. The company was completely confident that it had proved the theft against the employee – an alcoholic cleaner – but she sued for sex discrimination and breach of contract, and by the time the whole thing finished, nine months later, the firm was £11,000 down, on what should have been a slam-dunk case. No wonder firms are gun-shy of this kind of battle, and no wonder people (and their solicitors) have been emboldened to have a go. The stigma has gone from the obvious try-on. In fact the only stigma attaches to anyone who dares to question where we are going. Why did all three parties sign up to Hattie Harman’s “Equalities Act”, which is already threatening to be a new engine for vexatious litigation of all kinds? Because no one wants to seem opposed to “equality”.
Where, you might ask, is the equality in a system that adds so much to the cost base of business that they can’t afford – or don’t dare – to take on more staff in a recession? For centuries people have fought to protect workers from discrimination and unfair dismissal, and it is of course vital that we should have these safeguards.
The trouble is that it is now becoming standard practice to follow any dismissal or redundancy with a discrimination claim, in the knowledge that the employer – often an emanation of the state – will find it easier and cheaper to cough up rather than argue. The result is that many genuine grievances and genuine cases of discrimination risk being lumped in with a load of codswallop, and the system is in danger, frankly, of being brought into disrepute.
Of course there will be many who think I am being too harsh. Times are tough, they may say, and people who face unemployment should be urged to go for everything they can get – like the people who think they are morally justified in overclaiming on their insurance for lost luggage.
But what about the people who don’t qualify for any kind of “discrimination”, or who don’t feel that it would be right to launch a case? Who will speak up for them? What about the small businesses driven under by these extra costs? What about the psychological toll on society of a system that insidiously encourages people to lie or to exaggerate in order to get money from their employer?
The Government is right that it is time to end the tribunal madness, and to introduce a new culture of robust common sense, of the kind advocated by Trevor Phillips of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. Measures like Hattie Harman’s Equalities Act should be assessed for their impact on jobs and growth, never mind “equalities”.
If there is one way to entrench inequality in this country, it is to prevent British business from generating jobs. We used to compete on tax and on labour market flexibility, and the danger at the moment is that we are losing our edge on both.
In the case of the 40-year-old man who felt his bottom had been unjustly slapped by a 68-year-old woman, the whole thing should have been kicked out first bounce. As long as the hearings continue, the bills continue to mount, and the economy continues to suffer an unnecessary drag.