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Labour movement leaders ask if not now for workers’ rights, then when? #TUC21

“As a movement, we must harness public awareness of the UK’s rigged system to build momentum for an economy that properly takes advantage of the role for which trade unions were intended.”

By Sarah Glenister, IER Communications Officer

At the ever-popular Sunday night Institute of Employment Rights (IER)/Campaign for Trade Union Freedom (CTUF) TUC fringe meeting, leaders from across the labour movement stressed that the post-Brexit, post-pandemic era will present a unique opportunity for progressive change.

The high-profile panel of General Secretaries, academics, lawyers and politicians noted the wide range of existing workers’ rights issues that have risen to the foreground of public consciousness over the last 18 months. Inequality, insecure work, fire and rehire practices, to name just a few.

But as the cracks in the system widened, the government was nowhere to be seen, leaving workers to look to their peers for the camaraderie and support on which the labour movement is founded.

“Workers really did have to rely upon each other,” Dr Jo Grady, General Secretary of the UCU, said. “People have really realised there’s a solidarity that exists among people … and how fragile your own personal wealth and security is.”

The panel agreed that now is the time to campaign for a post-pandemic New Deal that ensures all workers can access fair pay and secure employment. As Christina McAnea, General Secretary for Unison, said: “If post-pandemic isn’t the time to be bold and ambitious…when is?”

Ideas for progressive change discussed by the panel ranged from securing the most basic of rights – such as to a transparent pay slip – to wholesale change to the structure of employment relations through the reinstatement of sectoral collective bargaining.

Professor Keith Ewing, President of the IER, identified five key areas for reform: 1) ensuring everyone who works for a living has access to all employment rights laid out in law; 2) raising standards to be at least in line with the UK’s international obligations; 3) reinstating widespread collective bargaining; 4) improving the security of work; and 5) mining Free Trade Agreements for protective clauses that the labour movement can rally behind.

The first of these targets was tackled by Lord John Hendy QC, Chair of the IER, who spoke on his Status of Workers’ Bill, which was passed to Committee Stage in the House of Lords on Friday (10 September 2021). The Bill legislates to replace the UK’s overcomplicated employment status system with a universal status of ‘worker’ that provides all but the genuinely self-employed with equal rights and protections, thereby abolishing the ‘limb (b) worker’ definition that has left workers on zero-hours contracts and in the gig economy vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

In today’s extraordinary time of reckoning for the neoliberal system, the Bill passed its Second Reading with almost unanimous support, including from several Tory peers!

Barry Gardiner MP spoke to another of Keith’s list of aims with his Bill to stop the practice of fire and rehire. This abuse of power has affected workers in every constituency, he said, urging people everywhere to write to their local MPs – regardless of which party they belong to – asking them to support the abolition of fire and rehire. With a groundswell of public support, the government’s hand could be forced in the same way it was over Free School Meals last year, Barry said.

In terms of the UK’s international obligations, Keith reminded delegates of the country’s poor record of compliance. The nation is currently in breach of 10 out of 13 of its European Social Charter obligations to workers. But new trade agreements are providing opportunities to lean on the government to follow the law. For instance, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) with the EU imposes duties to protect and promote social dialogue and to implement core ILO standards.

The government, Keith said, have successfully redefined trade unions as service providers, but that is not all that they are. As a movement, we must harness public awareness of the UK’s rigged system to build momentum for an economy that properly takes advantage of the role for which trade unions were intended – as co-regulators of pay and conditions with employers, ensuring all workers have a voice and the dignity that follows.

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