On Tuesday 16th (tomorrow) the Institute of Employment Rights and Wales TUC will hold a public meeting in Cardiff on trade union rights and fair work. The backdrop is a landmark announcement by Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford. Trade unions are at the core of a new plan for Welsh Government. It will embed social partnership and collective bargaining in law. The proposed Social Partnership Act will create new legal duties so that decision-making inside government departments is informed by agreements reached with trade unions and employers’ organisations. The Act will also create a new government directorate, the Office of Fair Work, with a cross-cutting remit to work across all areas of government. The aim is to put the interests of working people, and collective bargaining, at the heart of Wales’ future.
This commitment, announced to the Welsh Assembly last Monday, is outward-looking and internationalist. It embraces International Labour Organisation standards, examples from elsewhere in Europe and many of the ideas championed by the Institute of Employment Rights in its ‘Manifesto for Labour Law’ published in 2016. The Cardiff event is an opportunity to find out more about social partnership, fair work, labour law reform and progressive proposals from Wales TUC.
Under the new plan for Wales, the Office of Fair Work will mainstream the implementation of agreements reached collectively by the social partners. Its mission will be guided by the recommendations of a Fair Work Commission in Wales, which has reported on the legal, cultural and structural changes that are needed to advance fair work. The Commission states, ‘Fair work is where workers are fairly rewarded, heard and represented, secure, and able to progress in a healthy, inclusive environment, where rights are respected’.
Despite the devolution of considerable legislative authority to Wales, law-making powers in the fields of employment and industrial relations have been retained by the UK government at Westminster. This means Welsh Government does not have a free hand to improve rights at work. Nevertheless, it has identified significant scope for progress. For example, it will introduce the socio-economic equality duty as per section 1 of the Equality Act 2010, make changes to procurement so that funding from Welsh taxpayers creates fair work and rewards employers entering into collective agreements. It will monitor collective bargaining coverage, promote practical improvements at work, drive up the enforcement of employment rights, promote trade unions, and translate agreements reached through social partnership into action on the ground. The regulatory approach Welsh Government has taken to zero-hours contacting in social care seems likely to be extended to other industries and sectors. After 12 weeks continuous employment, and in circumstances where the work is ongoing, social care workers must be offered a guaranteed hours alternative to their zero-hours contract. It gives the worker the option of a choice which would not otherwise be available.
With its new plan for fair work and social partnership, Welsh Labour aims to deliver something distinctive for working people; fairness in work. Wales has a higher union membership density than elsewhere in the UK and Welsh Government has a track record of legislating in defence of trade union rights. However, this latest initiative proposes a concrete change in the relationship between the state and the unions in Wales. It puts into law the right to a seat at the table for trade unions and for employers’ organisations; it offers them an equal voice in tri-partite decision-making. ‘The purpose of this bill’, said Drakeford, ‘is to ensure that all those who contribute to the success of Wales can share in that success … all partners who come to the negotiating table, come as equals’.
His proposals received thoughtful responses on the floor of the National Assembly by Assembly Members from across the political spectrum. Problems of in-work poverty, insecurity of hours and unfair working practices were widely acknowledged, as was the plight of High Street businesses under attack from multinational corporations with a record of tax avoidance. An interesting aspect of the debate was the level of cross-party consensus about the need for unscrupulous employers to be reined in, not only for the benefit of workers but also to ensure responsible employers were not forced to compete against those who would drive down job quality and social standards.
A Social Partnership Act for Wales recognises that unions need a changed political and legislative environment in order to be able to thrive. Drakeford has coined it, the ‘Welsh approach’, building on Wales’ industrial history and co-operative traditions. Yet it is a move that could prove highly significant for UK-wide politics and labour law. It is deserving of enthusiastic support. The objective is to reduce inequality and to deliver practical improvements in workplaces. Collective bargaining enables employers and unions to work as active partners in improving the economy for the benefit of everyone.
The meeting is free, 16 July, 18:00 (refreshments from 17:30), Committee Room 1, Glamorgan Building, Cardiff University.