Scotland's Future: strengthening workers' rights north of the border?

Submitted by sglenister on Thu, 12/12/2013 - 11:27

12 December 2013

By Ruth Dukes, Senior Lecturer in Employment Law at the University of Glasgow

Ruth Dukes analyses the proposals made in the Scottish Government's white paper for independence, including employment law policies that mark a different approach to workers' rights and the economy to Westminster.

On 27 November 2013, the Scottish Government published its white paper for independence, Scotland's Future. The document contains a number of significant policy and legislative commitments in the field of employment rights and employment relations, and should be carefully read by workers and trade unions north of the border. But it is also of interest for workers in England and Wales, not least as a current example of a major UK political party willing to commit itself to involving trade unions in Government; to consulting on the introduction of employee representation on company boards; and to recognising 'the positive role that can be played by collective bargaining'.

At nearly 700 pages long, the white paper sets out comprehensively the Government's policies and plans for an independent Scotland. In part, it involves the presentation of arguments in favour of independence. In part, it is simply an SNP manifesto: a statement of the policies which the Party would seek to implement if it were elected to power following the secession of Scotland from the UK.

Policies in the field of employment rights and employment relations are contained for the most part in chapter 3 of the white paper, Finance and the Economy. The headline message here is that the Government is strongly committed both to growing the economy and to combating inequality. Time and again it highlights the importance of economic growth and competitiveness and, time and again, it emphasises the need to take steps to tackle long-standing inequalities, both social and regional. 'Growth and competitiveness are important' the Government writes, but so are 'the characteristics of growth and the distribution of its benefits'. Putting clear blue water between itself and the ConDem Government in Westminster, the SNP describes inequality (substantive inequality) as damaging in and of itself, and restrictive of growth in the long term. It goes on to identify paid work – jobs – as key to the achievement of economic growth and a more equal society. But it clarifies early on that the jobs it has in mind are not low-paid or insecure (precarious), but quite specifically both 'sustainable' and 'fairly rewarded'.

How will the Government ensure the creation of secure and well-paid jobs? Here, there is emphasis on the benefits that independence would bring in allowing for a coherent approach to labour market regulation: tax and welfare, education and training, and other employment-related policies should all be aligned in furtherance of the objective of 'full-employment' (my emphasis). With the aim of ensuring that Scottish companies can compete with others, there is a commitment to set corporation tax at three percentage points below the UK level. In the interests of combating inequality, but also with a view to increasing labour market participation among women with young children, there is a commitment to provide 30 hours per week free childcare for all children aged over one. In recognition of the particular problems faced by young people in the current economic climate, there is a commitment to guarantee a – constitutionally protected – right to education, training or employment to all those aged 24 or younger.

In terms of what might be labelled employment law proper, concrete legislative proposals or commitments are made in respect of four matters of concern to the Government: wages, employment security, gender equality, and union or worker participation. In line with its identification of 'fairly-rewarded' jobs as a key means of combating inequality, a firm commitment is made to ensuring that the minimum wage rises at least in line with inflation. To that end, it proposes the creation of a Fair Work Commission, comprising representatives of business, trade unions, and wider society, to advise the Government on the minimum wage and other matters. It also undertakes to continue to support and promote the living wage. With an eye to improving employment security, it states that it would reverse changes to the law made in recent years by the ConDem Westminster Government: for example, it would restore the 90-day consultation period for collective redundancies, and abolish the 'shares for rights' scheme. In furtherance of gender equality, the Scottish Government commits itself to consulting on the introduction of a quota for female representation on company and public boards.

In some of the most remarkable passages in chapter 3, the Government declares its wish to involve trade unions and workers in Government, and in the management of companies. A foremost priority is said to be 'to work directly with the trade unions, employers associations, employers and the voluntary sector to build a partnership approach to addressing labour market challenges'. A 'particular focus' of the work of these groups would lie, it is said, with 'encouraging wider trade union participation…in recognition of the positive role that can be played by collective bargaining in improving labour market conditions'. Whether this would involve changes to the law regulating union recognition, collective bargaining, and the right to strike is not spelled out, though there is elsewhere in the white paper (chapter 10) a firm commitment to honour international obligations on equality and human rights, which would include freedom of association. In furtherance of its desired 'partnership approach', the Government proposes the creation of a 'National Convention on Employment and Labour Relations': a forum for 'direct and constructive dialogue' on labour market regulation and other employment-related policies. It also commits itself to consulting on the introduction of employee representation on company boards, the question of precisely what this would involve being a matter for consultation.

For the moment, these proposals are short on detail. Whether they could be made to work in practice – whether the National Convention could develop into an effective policy-making body, giving workers a real voice in the formation of employment law and labour market regulation; whether 'employee representation on company boards' would take a form which allowed workers to influence decision-making – may depend ultimately on whether the Government is willing and able to take steps to force reluctant employers to play ball. As recent events in Grangemouth illustrate, neither willingness nor ability in this regard should be assumed.

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