For a Workers’ Rights Bill

Why we need a Workers’ Rights Bill before leaving the EU

On 12 December 2017, I spoke in the House of Commons in the aptly named debate, ‘Regulations to deal with the deficiencies arising from Withdrawal’, in relation to an amendment that sought to bring a measure of protection on workers’ rights post-Brexit. Specifically, the amendment stated that no changes were to be made to workers’ rights unless this was signed off by the Joint Ministerial Committee. There were other amendments on workers’ rights which we supported – however, this one was designed to expose the scant respect for the devolved administrations if ruled out by the government. It was and, thus, provided us all with yet another example of the blatant Tory power grab back to Westminster.

It wasn’t much of a surprise to discover the government had no intention of even pretending to consult or involve the Scottish or Welsh Assembly governments in any changes to employment law. What about Northern Ireland? Well, that’s one of the reasons I found it odd that no parties apart from the SNP and the Greens called for the devolution of employment law when the Smith Commission was looking at further powers for Scotland, given that divergence already exists in this area as employment law is devolved in Northern Ireland.

As I said in the debate, you can’t trust the Tories on workers’ rights, given the appalling statements made during the passage of the Trade Union Act 2016 – the Anti-Trade Union Act as I call it – when their true colours broke through the facade that some in that party had been trying to construct about being the real ‘workers’ party.

When he was an MEP, one of the Lords’ ministers who was moved to the’ Exiting the EU team’ in October, Lord Callanan, is on the record as stating that in order to help business ‘we could scrap the working time directive, the agency workers’ directive, the pregnant workers’ directive and all the other barriers to actually employing people’.

Perhaps, I shouldn’t have been surprised when only a few days after making my speech about the threat Brexit poses to workers’ rights, I woke up on the following Sunday morning to find my twitter feed full of threads incredulous about the latest Tory spin on the golden opportunity and pay bonanza that awaits workers post-Brexit when the Working Time Directive is abolished! In the Sun and Sunday Times, this has been touted as a welcome freedom for ‘millions of families the chance to top up their wages and help small firms eager to cash in on the new global trade market’.

With seven other MPs, I pressed Theresa May on this when she made her statement on the 18 December on the outcome of the latest European Council. I asked her to confirm that there have been no discussions (planned or actual) in Cabinet or in the European negotiations about scrapping the Working Time Directive, Agency Worker Directive or Pregnant Workers Directive. None of her answers ruled out cabinet discussion on the issue.

One of the questions I believe all would-be parliamentarians should be asked is what piece of legislation would they want to table to affect change, should they have the opportunity to bring in a Private Members’ Bill. I have had a workers’ rights bill at the top of my wish list since I first thought
about standing for parliament. I haven’t been fortunate enough to win the annual ballot, although my SNP neighbour, Stewart McDonald did this year and he has tabled a Bill to end unpaid work trials, the Unpaid Trial Work Periods (Prohibition) Bill.

There are other mechanisms available, and I used the Ten Minute Rule Bill route to lodge a Workers’ (Definitions and Rights) Bill when it became clear that Brexit was going to provide the hard right wing in the Tory party with the opportunity they crave to reshape society and the economy in the way they want.

Supporters of a hard Brexit have a vision for the world of work that hard wires inequality even further into an already deeply unequal society. With the exception of a small coterie of bonus rich executives, sport/entertainment stars, and some highly skilled people (unable to be replaced by a robot or an algorithm), their vision if fully realised would result in the vast majority of jobs becoming low paid, insecure and highly dependent on the worker being totally flexible. Dismantling social protections is the key to maximising the opportunities for exploitation, whether it be eroding employment rights or dismantling the welfare state.

I would highly recommend Jacques Peretti’s book ‘Done; the secret deals that are changing our world’ , a follow-on from the excellent documentaries he’s produced for a fuller analysis of what is being done to remove any power or choice we have left and leave workers exposed to the full rigours of market forces.      

In the aftermath of Brexit, there was bewilderment from many who supported ‘remain’ about the motives of the right wing ‘leave’ campaign. One of the most puzzled laments from remainers is ‘why would they want to destroy jobs and the economy?’ as the cruel fiction that leaving would provide millions to spend on the NHS has been exposed for the ‘Big Lie’ that it is. That mystery is easily solved if you accept there are those seeking money making opportunities that can only come from a country with a destroyed manufacturing base, heavily debt dependent population and with the fastest growth in jobs in the ‘gig’ economy.

The Taylor Review on the gig economy is little more than a plaster facade to cover the government’s unwillingness to improve workers’ rights in the most exploitative work environments. It’s a weak set of proposals and talking points that leaves the balance of power with employers and big business, and falls well short of addressing the manifest issues facing those in insecure employment. Not only is it a fig leaf, the report has been put out for ‘consultation’, code for ‘kicking into the long grass’.

One of the most chilling interviews I ever saw was with a food delivery cycle worker who admitted that she never met anyone from the company on a day-to-day basis and all her deliveries were computer generated. It was a perfect example of how to keep a worker isolated as she admitted she had no sense of whether business was busy or slack or how anyone else was doing.

So, now more than ever we need to fight to protect the rights workers have and seek to bring the isolated and marginalised workers under the umbrella. The Workers’ Rights Bill I’m campaigning on has been informed by many discussions I’ve had with unions, academics and the third sector and is going to focus on four specific areas, namely 1) A clear definition of what is a ‘worker’; 2) zero hour contracts only to be allowed once agreed with a recognised union; 3) appropriate notice of shift changes; and 4) that a claim can be made against a principal contractor if subcontractor ceases trading.

Linked to the first item – a definition of worker – should also be a statement of employment on the first day of a job. This is in addition to a full contract to be signed by both parties and which details pay, terms and conditions. However, a simple requirement for the employer to provide a written confirmation that someone is employed on day one shouldn’t be too much of a burden and is a reasonable minimum.

I hope for a measure of cross party support for the Bill and will work with anyone who shares this concern for what we are facing in the coming months and years. It is frustrating to have the sense of the clock being turned back to Victorian standards of employment, with technology being used as the modernising twist on basic exploitation. However, I strongly believe that the party who promoted the Master and Servants Act in days gone by shouldn’t be allowed to ride roughshod over hard won protections, and that workers’ rights need to be safeguarded as never before.

Chris Stephens is the (SNP) MP for Glasgow South West and chair of the PCS union parliamentary group.

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