UN Special Rapporteur calls for increased trade union rights in the UK

27 June 2013 Trade union rights in the UK must be strengthened, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom or peaceful assembly and of association Maina Kiai has said.

27 Jun 2013| News

27 June 2013

Trade union rights in the UK must be strengthened, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom or peaceful assembly and of association Maina Kiai has said.

In his report, Mr Kiai noted that improvements must be made to the rights of trade unionists to represent workers at a time when the economy is flagging. “It is in such difficult times, with angry and frustrated citizens, that the respect for such rights must be at its highest,” he stated.
Mr Kiai’s recommendations aimed to protect peaceful protestors as well as trade union organisations and their members.

Increase rights for peaceful protestors

Among the Rapporteur’s recommendations was an urge for the government to ban the use of kettling and containment tactics against peaceful protestors. He also said peaceful protestors should be protected from infiltration by undercover police officers, being listed on the National Domestic Extremism Database, becoming the subjects of stop-and-search tactics by the police, and having stringent bail conditions imposed upon them. The police should wear their identification badges at all times in the context of a peaceful protest and must not use pre-emptive approaches against those who wish to peacefully assemble. Mr Kiai stated that the government should “adopt a positive law on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly whose purpose is to facilitate and protect such right, in full consultation with civil society and other relevant stakeholders”.

Strengthen the rights of trade unions

The right to freedom of association should protect citizens from being discriminated against due to their membership of groups like trade unions. In respect to the right to freedom of association, Mr Kiai advocated the strengthening of labour law to “establish a right not to be blacklisted, and to provide redress for those who have been victims of this practice”. He also recommended that the right to strike should be protected under UK law, including the right to organise secondary strikes.

On blacklisting, Mr Kiai said current laws “fall short of what is necessary to eradicate the practice … and to provide adequate redress to victims”. He also described sanctions against known blacklisters to be “inadequate” and the prohibition of the “compilation, use, sale or supply of ‘prohibited lists'” used for anti-union discrimination in the Employment Relations Act 1999 does not establish blacklisting as a criminal offence. “The regulations arguably do not establish a right not to be blacklisted and therefore no compensation would be payable in case of violation; and trade union activities are not defined and may be interpreted narrowly,” he stated.

In its report back to Mr Kiai, the Coalition government showed the same dismissiveness they have to the regular campaigns for the illegalisation of blacklisting and greater trade union rights that occur in the UK. The government stated that it still believes the current protections against blacklisting are sufficient and denied there was evidence of ongoing blacklisting practices in the construction industry (although there have been recent and widespread accusations against Crossrail bosses Bam Ferrovial Kier).

Although Mr Kiai also urged the government to improve the rights of trade unions and the right to secondary action to become “in conformity with international human rights law”, the government asserted that it was already following international laws “taking account of the need to balance the rights and freedoms of all its citizens” (including, presumably, those who do not want workers to strike, such as employers). This is a continuation of the age-old argument of the Rights of Establishment vs. the Right to Freedom of Association, in which the freedom of employers to provide services, and the right of workers to associate, are pitched against each other.

The UN report does not touch on the cuts to facility time that have been enacted across the public sector, reducing workplace representation of state-employed staff. This is just one of the ways in which the Coalition continues to attempt the evasion of international law by making it more difficult for workers to organise and bring claims against bad employers.

In our latest report The political attack on workplace representation – a legal response, Chair of the IER John Hendy QC and Alan Bogg set out a ten-point manifesto for trade union representatives. The authors detail the ways in which UK law currently fails to live up to the obligations of international law.

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