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A Charter for workers’ rights in Scotland?

JANE CAROLAN explains how a new initiative from the Institute of Employment Rights aims to push labour law up the list of political priorities

THINK of Ineos and what comes to mind? Probably the story of trade union victimisation, and derecognition, summed up by Len McCluskey as “an industrial dispute that highlighted the legal disadvantages that trade unions face in trying to protect members’ pay and conditions.” 

The dispute at Grangemouth started in 2013 and dragged on in various guises over the next few years. For Mark Lyon, the Unite convener at the time, it was about one man — Ineos boss Jim Ratcliffe — with the power to do anything without constraint, illustrating the lack of power that workers have in the face of the machinations of big business. 

The Better than Zero campaign has highlighted the state of the hospitality and services industry, best described as an area where young people are being shafted. 

The campaign has highlighted a number of concerns, from the health and safety fears of young people expected to work till the early hours of the morning without adequate transport to get home, to exploitation from technology through spy camera use in the workplace. 

A Unite survey in 2018 produced the startling figure that nine in 10 in this industry experience sexual harassment either by members of the public or other workers. 

Hospitality is only one of the sectors marked by precarious work, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work or underemployment. 

The TUC estimates that at least one in 10 of the workforce are in precarious work, or 260,000-plus working Scots. 

This is typically thought of as a characteristic of the unskilled workforce but it is a creeping problem across professionals in education, health and social care.  

Insecure work equals insecure income, typically on minimum wage or on rates well below those on permanent contracts.   

Characteristically precarious work provides evidence that having a job is no longer a way out of poverty, with recognition of the “working poor” and the use of foodbanks by those with inadequate income a well recognised phenomenon. 

The examples could be multiplied but illustrate the problems common in Scotland in 2019: disregard for trade union rights, workplace exploitation and in-work poverty.

Taken together rather than as separate problems, the totality of these issues add up to the need for debate about a framework for workers’ rights in Scotland. 

After 10 years of austerity and nearly half a century of neoliberalism, Scottish workers, like those in the rest of Britain, work longer hours, have less training, fewer holidays, worse conditions and worse legal protection than the majority of our European counterparts. 

The reform of labour law needs to be pushed up the list of political priorities and it is in this context that the Institute of Employment Rights Scotland was launched at the STUC 2018. 

IER Scotland aims to produce an employment rights agenda based on key issues identified and prioritised by trade unions. 

The past year has been spent reviewing these issues with leading trade unionists in Scotland and we will be launching a consultation on a Charter of Workers’ Rights For Scotland at the STUC this spring. 

It is vital that Scottish shop stewards, union branches and trades councils have an opportunity to have a say in producing a document that the labour movement could rally behind.

The starting point for the charter is the responsibility recognised by the United Nations that employers have to act decently. 

In a devolved context government has both a responsibility and an opportunity to take the initiative where there are needs to be met. 

Clearly all the examples listed above illustrate the needs that Scottish workers have. Within the charter those “needs” are developed as trade union rights. 

These encompass both rights for the protection of the individual workers, and rights to enable trade unions to organise represent and effectively bargain. 

Labour law is generally a reserved matter, meaning that legislative powers lie at Westminster, though at the time of the Smith Commission, the Scottish trade union movement was broadly supportive of the devolution of trade union law. 

This will no doubt continue to the subject of continued and heated debate. However, governments, including the Scottish government, can take steps as an employer, as an administrative authority, with power over contracts and licensing, as well as economic powers. 

It cannot be denied that there has been progress in some areas of the trade union agenda — the establishment of the Fair Work Commission, or the successful campaign on the living wage. But many trade unions would express disappointment over other areas — an example being RMT’s criticism over Scottish ferry or rail contracts.

Part of the necessary debate over the coming months needs to be how effectively these powers are being used at the present time and how they could be used more effectively.

The charter proposes that if these powers are to be used effectively there needs to be an overall framework within government structures — a Scottish ministry with a Cabinet-level minister. 

The charter at present is definitely not set in stone. It has been produced by the Institute as a starting point for a wide-ranging debate, one that in the post-STUC Congress period every branch or trade council should want to express an opinion on.

Jane Carolan is Institute of Employment Rights Scotland co-ordinator.

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