For a branch of law intended, at the time of its creation less than half a century ago, to be simple, accessible and non-legalistic, employment law has become shrouded by an extraordinary number of myths and misconceptions. Employers, trade unions, free market warriors and socially responsible campaigners alike succumb all too readily to the temptation to muddy the waters by allowing prejudices and preconceived ideas to obscure the truth about how the legal rules work in reality.
At present, we are witnessing a shift in the legal regime, driven by the Coalition's belief that "red tape" is deterring employers from taking on staff, and holding back growth. There is plenty of room to challenge that belief. Adrian Beecroft's widely publicised recommendations for reform of employment law, for instance, lack credibility where they are based on assumptions rather than evidence.
But commentators who fret about the erosion of employment rights do themselves no favours by indulging in the same kind of weird exaggerations that they criticise - rightly - when made by those with whom they disagree. And it is depressing when reputable journalists abandon reasoned argument for the sake of a rant.
Two recent examples from The Guardian spring to mind. The other day, George Monbiot wrote an interesting column about Diggers 2012, mostly young dispossessed people who are seeking a fresh life away from the corporate economy. Despite the rather misty-eyed tone of his account of the Runnymede settlers, Monbiot highlighted the very real plight of members of a generation often denied the chance to earn enough to escape "a lifetime of rent, debt and insecurity". It's one of the most troubling issues of our day.
But having flagged up such an important issue, why did Monbiot need to insist that "through...the erosion of... employment laws, big business now asserts a control over its workforce almost unprecedented in the age of universal suffrage"? What extraordinary erosion of rights has he in mind? Today, employees (and also millions of people who are not employees, but are also protected by many modern statutes) benefit from many more employment law rights than existed even thirty years ago, let alone since the dawn of universal suffrage.
Zoe Williams fell into the same trap in another otherwise worthwhile column a few days earlier. She argued against the view that maternity leave is simply a 'women's issue' - "It's an issue for all of us, and we would all be poorer without it." Now, that seems to me to be a very good point, too often overlooked.
Why on earth, then, did she gild the lily by warning: "Don't buy the line that pregnant women are hard to sack - they've never been easier to sack"? It's impossible to know what led her to make a claim that seems to be so far from the truth as to be embarrassing. Needless to say, she didn't offer a shred of justification for it.
Does this matter? After all, these are talented journalists, making polemical points with the best of intentions. Well, I think it does matter. For one thing, the credibility of even the best argument can be damaged beyond repair if it is padded out with wild and unfounded claims. Any good lawyer knows that, but so does any good journalist.
And there's something else. Williams argued that, of those pregnant women who suffer discrimination, only a minority seek legal redress. She said that legal protection is academic if most people "can't test it in court because they're too tired or too demoralised to do so." The irony is that if respected commentators exaggerate the limitations of employment law, they foster that sense of demoralisation.
It seems fair enough for Williams to criticise Steve Hilton, the former government adviser, who sought constraints on maternity rights because of thinking based on "false foundations". But it doesn't help if the counter-arguments are also built on false foundations. What employers and employees alike need is for the debate about the future of employment law to start with an accurate assessment of its current scope. Mythologising employment law, whether from the perspective of employers or employees. does nobody any favours.