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Fighting Tory plans for a bonfire of workers’ rights

The Thatcherites in the Cabinet present a real threat to workers’ rights, which our whole labour movement must unite to fight, argues RICHARD BURGON MP

A FEW years ago a number of free-market extremists published a book claiming British workers “prefer a lie-in to hard work,” slandering them as “among the worst idlers in the world” who “work among the lowest hours.”

One of the authors of that book is now the foreign secretary. Another the home secretary. Another the trade secretary. Another author of that book is the new business secretary, who has established a new 30-strong panel of business leaders to discuss changes to workers’ rights including getting rid of break and holiday pay entitlements and ending the already limited maximum working hours protections of the Working Time Directive. 

It says everything you need to know that this consultation is being done solely with business leaders. 

Unite the Union general secretary Len McCluskey is right to warn the government against refusing to engage with the trade unions on this.

The government’s appalling handling of the pandemic has not only led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths but is leading us into a historic crisis of living standards with unemployment set to soar and millions facing poverty and insurmountable debt. 

But to the Thatcherites this crisis is also their opportunity to reshape the settlement between workers and owners and tip the scales of our rigged economy even further against working people. 

With millions fearful of losing their jobs and not being able to feed their families, ministers see an opening to drive down working conditions in a race to the bottom. 

They want to use Brexit and the economic crisis we are in to rip up hard-won workers’ rights and deliver Thatcherism 2.0.

This latest attack comes after decades of neoliberal so-called “reforms” that have weakened the power of working people including in defending their rights at work. 

As a consequence, for the last 40 years, ever since Thatcher set about smashing the trade unions, the share going to workers has been getting smaller. 

In 1976, wages made up 64 per cent of GDP. It’s now only 54 per cent. That’s a huge transfer from workers to line the pockets of the already super-rich. 

That’s why poverty is up and why people find themselves working harder and harder just to stand still. 

But for the Thatcherites the job isn’t finished yet — they want to model Britain on the United States where, after adjusting for inflation, the average hourly wage in 2018 was just about the same as it was 40 years earlier.

Despite the slanders from Tory ministers, British workers work some of the longest average hours per week across Europe. 

As a trade union lawyer for a decade before I became an MP, I saw first hand the cruelty of the existing Tory anti-worker laws. 

Tory plans to further rip up what little protections workers have will inflict more financial hardship on those who can least afford it. 

Reports that the government is looking at changing how holiday pay is calculated shows the hypocrisy of these ministers who one week clap for workers and the next effectively rob hundreds of pounds from the pay of care workers, delivery drivers, security guards and other low-paid workers by rigging their holiday pay allocations against them.

The use of fire and rehire as a tactic to try to force workers to accept worse pay and conditions by threatening mass sackings has become troublingly widespread as the crisis deepens, with the TUC warning this week that one in 10 workers now face fire and rehire. 

Large employers including British Airways and British Gas have sought to use the crisis to undermine the terms and pay of their workforces. 

Rightly, they have faced serious resistance and co-ordinated action from our trade union movement.

In support of those workers and their trade unions fighting these appalling tactics, in Parliament this week Labour forced a vote on defending rights at work and legislating to outlaw appalling “fire and rehire” tactics. 

Tory MPs didn’t even have the stomach to vote — instead simply ignoring the motion.

This crisis has highlighted once again just how weak workers’ rights are and the importance of trade unions in ensuring workplace safety. 

It should be a moment for our movement to build a renewed campaign to strengthen workers’ rights. 

Giving everyone full rights at work from day one on the job, banning zero-hours contracts and reintroducing sector-wide collective bargaining would help to protect working people from rising insecurity at work and boost pay.

Sadly such changes will have to wait for a future Labour government because whatever the the Tories’ rhetoric about “levelling up,” the truth is that their agenda is the antithesis of that claim — they want workers everywhere to face increased exploitation as their rights are taken away from them.

The only way to stop that is through a strong and united labour and trade union movement, fighting like hell to defend our hard-won rights at work.

Richard Burgon is Labour MP for Leeds East.

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