Greater union presence is essential to heal divided Britain

04 September 2013 By Carolyn Jones, Director of the IER Giving workers a voice is critical if the UK is to recover its economy, greater equality and quality of life.

Commentary icon4 Sep 2013|Comment

Carolyn Jones
Carolyn Jones

Senior Vice President, The Institute of Employment Rights

04 September 2013

By Carolyn Jones, Director of the IER

Giving workers a voice is critical if the UK is to recover its economy, greater equality and quality of life.

September 2013 began with reports that Britain is increasingly divided. As ever we have the rich and the poor, the in work and the unemployed, the secure and the insecure. But now research shows that our labour market is increasingly divided, with a “second division” workforce of mainly women and the under 30’s, stuck in low paid, part time, temporary jobs. Many are on zero-hours contracts, many more falsely classified as self employed. Too many are surviving only through in-work benefit top ups, with 40% of those approaching CABs for assistance actually in employment.

And yet the posh boys in power still peddle the same arrogant message. Using the stale and discredited narratives that say regulations hurt business and rights cost jobs, this Government continues to hit out at those least able to hit back.

The latest rights-reduction scheme came into force on 1st September. Workers who already invest their time, energy, skills and commitment into their company are now being asked to sell their rights to unfair dismissal and redundancy for a “share” in the company that they are helping to build daily.

A cursory glance through the 2013 TUC Agenda highlights the extent of the ever-growing employment rights problems facing workers in all sectors of our economy. Whether it’s on health and safety, unfair dismissal, redundancy, maternity or equality issues, this government has ignored all the evidence and sidestepped opposition to force through changes that not only turn back the clock but are now destabilising the very bases of our industrial relations settlement.

And there’s more to come. In the drip-drip fashion reminiscent of Thatcher’s rolling programme of anti-trade union laws, Cameron has more horrors in line for individuals between now and April 2014.

First, a law allowing employers to hold “protected conversations” with workers will prevent Tribunals assessing the true facts behind a dismissal – a modern day bullies charter. Second, the 114-year-old law that holds employers liable for breaches of health and safety procedures will be reversed. In future, the burden of proof will be on the injured worker to prove that the employer was to blame for the accident.

And in the run up to those changes being imposed, access to justice has been systematically shut down to working people. Workers who are abused at work, discriminated against by their boss or simply sacked for saying the wrong thing, will now have to fork out at least £1,200 and out up to £2,800 to pursue their claim for justice through the tribunal and court system.

Now that they’ve dismantled the legal system that protects workers against abuse and holds bosses accountable for bad practices, what’s to prevent the downward spiral into yet more abuse and even higher forms of exploitation? Bad practice trickles down far faster than wealth!

Witness the growth in free interns, “work experience” schemes and zero-hours contracts. And what is blacklisting if not a cabal of modern day industrialists punishing those who dare to speak up in defence of workers?

The answer, of course, rests in a stronger voice for workers and their unions both at the workplace and at the national negotiating table. That’s why at this year’s TUC one of the main policy proposal pushes is for an economic strategy that has at its heart, a dynamic role for trade unions and collective bargaining.

A new report by Keith Ewing and John Hendy – Reconstruction after the crisis: a manifesto for collective bargaining – shows in detail how putting collective bargaining at the heart of our economic reconstruction would be good for economic efficiency, good for social justice and a good step towards meeting our international labour law obligations.

Of course the arrogant posh boys in power together with their friends in the media will portray this as backward looking and revolutionary, claiming it’s simply trade unions looking after their own self interest. But even the IMF has published research suggesting that collective bargaining contributes to economic stability.

And negotiating terms and conditions at sectoral level sets standards not just on pay and not just for union members. Standards of training, health and safety, numbers of apprentices, percentages of part time workers, minimum hour guarantees and levels of pay would all be agreed and applied across whole sectors of the economy.

Companies would no longer be able to compete by cutting labour costs. The downward spiral would be broken, replaced with a road map towards high standards based on economic efficiency, justice and democracy.

It’s time for UK politicians – particularly those looking for working class votes – to put the “enemy within” ideology aside and join the growing proportion of the population who see unions and collective bargaining as a force for good.

Reconstruction after the crisis: a manifesto for collective bargaining will be launched at TUC Congress on Sunday 8th September. See here for further details.

Carolyn Jones

Carolyn Jones

Carolyn Jones Carolyn Jones Carolyn is the Director of the Institute of Employment Rights