Workers under attack

The most important tasks facing the labour movement across the world at present are the twin evils of unemployment induced by austerity and the attack on employment laws driven by neo-liberalism. I believe this is the challenge of our times. We are under attack – and I do not use these words lightly – but much is getting lost in the Fog of Austerity as we try to maintain jobs and protect our pensions and pay.

At home in late October last year a report by the Tory donor and venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft commissioned by the Prime Minister stated that it was impossible to make workers redundant. It would be laughable if it was not so serious. As we know currently workers who feel they were unfairly dismissed can make a claim after 12 months in the job – an outrageously long period as it is. This Trojan horse of a report called for an end to unfair dismissal in its entirety. It was a deliberate ploy to lay the groundwork for an attack on this aspect of employment law. The Charted Institute for Personnel and Development itself said that the measures could be counter-productive and would not add one job to the economy. Even the Treasury’s own figures state that more than 80 per cent of applications made to an Employment Tribunal did not result in a full hearing.

Directly related to this is the aspect facility time agreements which are also under attack by another wing of the Tory neoliberal clan led by Priti Patel. This is despite such agreements – agreed to by employers and unions in the interests of productivity, training, health and safety and more harmonious industrial relations – accruing benefits for the economy of up to £1.1 billion in a jointly-produced report by the previous Government, TUC and CBI. These statistics refute the wild claims of a ‘compensation culture’ but we aren’t dealing with sensible people or pragmatists here.

The Government is making it easier to sack people from April 2012 where workers and their union will not be entitled to make a tribunal case against an employer unless the person has worked with that employer for two years – although this will not apply in discrimination cases. The Government has said it is looking at a proposal for small firms (employing 10 workers and fewer) to be able to by-pass this process and sack employees via a compensated ‘no-fault-dismissal’ process. Potentially under proposals being actively considered an employer would only have to give 30 days’ consultation notice over large-scale redundancies instead of the existing 90 days.

Despite the self-proclaimed prophet Vince Cable’s claim to the contrary, trade unionists know that this will exacerbate the ‘hire and fire culture’ in the UK and accelerate the redundancy ‘notices’ via workplace tannoys and by text message. We already have the most deregulated employment laws in the original grouping of EU17 countries. Let’s be clear; this will not save or add one job to the economy. To the contrary it is an ideological attempt to make the UK the most deregulated economy in the developed world.

The larger problem is not employment laws but getting the banks to lend to small businesses, an issue that the Government only pays lip service to. I would suggest the Government would be more productive spending its time on this aspect than pursuing attacks on working people. There is absolutely no link regarding deregulated economies and economic growth as our ‘Making Devolution Work’ paper was at pains to point out citing the experiences of Scandinavian countries and Germany in particular. It is the politics driving the economics here.

We can also factor into the equation proposals which masquerade as consultation exercises announced by Ed Davey in May last year which also eyed-up changing the Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment Regulations (TUPE). The regulation protects the pay and conditions of workers transferred between companies.

Despite the self-proclaimed prophet Vince Cable’s claim to the contrary, trade unionists know that this will exacerbate the ‘hire and fire culture’ in the UK and accelerate the redundancy ‘notices’ via workplace tannoys and by text message

Additionally, we have the constant referrals to industrial ballot laws being ‘undemocratic’ when unions have to jump through every bureaucratic and legal hurdle several times over to conduct a lawful strike as our BA and recent BESNA disputes have illustrated. Oh and just before I forget there is the not-so-small matter of health and safety laws which have been described by our Prime Minster as being akin to a ‘monster’ as he vows to ‘kill off’ health and safety laws. This has obviously been borne out of his experience in factories and working the land!

So where can the Scottish Parliament and Government position itself to fight against this neoliberal tide bashing against us? On many issues the Parliament is taking a stand and is sympathetic to the trade unions position despite many of the issues being reserved – even if the support is mostly vocal we do welcome it. However, what is not welcome is the Scottish Government’s (shared by Northern Ireland) expressed position to make our country a low-tax haven through it’s intention to slash Corporation Tax to levels in the Republic of Ireland.

Let us also be clear that there is no credible evidence that lowering this tax to Irish levels accrues any economic benefits but rather is in danger of creating Celtic beds for hot cash which just flow out the country hence no real tangible benefits. The danger is in the race to the bottom where we all lose and compete purely on who has the lowest rate. Whether the EU would allow such a move is a moot point for the moment because what is important right now is the commitment of the Scottish Government in principle to this position.

Therefore, the question to ask is what type of economy do we seek for Scotland, independent or not – a Scandinavian model or low-tax haven economy? The Scottish Government can argue that it doesn’t have these powers at its disposal but that argument will not wash for much longer as they will have to sketch out in detail their position on employment laws in an independent Scotland. However, we do not need to wait until we are independent or while we remain inside the Union because there is plenty we can be doing through the Scottish Parliament in the intervening period between now and a constitutional referendum.

What can we be doing to re-regulate and strengthen worker protections? The answer is plenty! Unite would prioritise three areas: sector forums; bus re-regulation, and procurement. On the issue of sector forums, while the Scottish Government can’t legislate it can support and promote such arrangements in the spirit of improving productivity, efficiencies, skills and training, coordinating targeted investment and wage settings.

Bus re-regulation has been an issue that Unite – and its antecedent union the T&G – has campaigned on for well over a decade now. The Scottish Parliament can legislate on this matter brining real benefits to workers and communities as well as making a significant contribution to bus manufacturing and the environment. On the final issue, the Scottish Government – if it had the willingness – could legislate on procurement ensuring that more stringent conditions are applied. In doing so, we can ensure workers – particularly those with disabilities – and rates of pay are protected, and that local businesses where possible can benefit rather than foreign companies. After all this is our money and the Scottish Government should be putting it where our collective mouths say it should be going.

So the challenges are massive and as great at the birth of our movement. But we must take confidence in the strength and morality of our argument because unlike the neoliberals our positions have been in the interests of the many and not the few.