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Interview: 'Labour will bring democracy to the workplace'

Shadow employment rights minister LAURA PIDCOCK tells the Morning Star about the party's plans to empower workers and stamp out super-exploitation

ESSENTIAL to Labour’s promise to deliver an irreversible shift in wealth and power to ordinary people if it wins next month’s election is a crackdown on super-exploitation in the gig economy and a revolution in workers’ rights.

Shadow minister for employment rights Laura Pidcock will join shadow chancellor John McDonnell tomorrow to outline some of the planned changes ahead of a bigger employment rights launch later in the campaign.

“Our huge expansion of employment rights involves looking beyond the question of individual rights, though these are important, to a place where workers have stronger collective rights,” she tells the Morning Star.

“At the moment you have an atomised workforce, especially in the gig economy and a bewildering array of employment relationships which make it difficult for workers to find out what their rights actually are.

“You have zero-hours contracts, bogus self-employment, workers dismissed and re-engaged so they do not qualify for rights that come with a certain length of employment.

“As you’ve seen in our manifesto we’re going to ban zero-hours contracts outright and we would give workers the right to have their average hours recognised in a contract.

“Classifying everyone as a worker from day one of employment will give parity of terms, conditions and pay.

“We’re introducing a £10-an-hour minimum wage and a 5 per cent increase in pay across the public sector, but we also need to look at working hours, as a living wage is nothing of the sort if you can’t get enough hours.”

Ensuring all workers can access their legal rights and are protected from exploitation will be the job of the workers protection agency.

“What makes our proposals so good is the fact that they will be enforceable. We need an agency that is concerned with stamping out exploitation, whose job it is to pay attention if trade unions are having trouble accessing a particular workforce and which has the power to intervene on workers’ behalf. 

“For example on an issue like a request for flexible working, the request might be reasonable but at the moment an employer can simply say it doesn’t think it is reasonable and the worker has no recourse to an objective assessment of that.”

Labour is not just looking at remedying specific injustices, but at changing “a whole culture where in some cases people are made to pay for the privilege of having a job.”

That can involve being fined if you can’t work — as depicted in Ken Loach’s brilliant film Sorry We Missed You — but also “being made to pay for a uniform, to pay for your own protective equipment. We’re saying the employer should provide you with everything you need to do the job.

“We need to give workers the confidence to speak out. That means developing a strategy to organise workers across the workforce, so that trade unions become an accepted presence in any healthy employment relationship.

“A ministry of employment rights is necessary so you have a secretary of state with a specific obligation to ensure this happens.

“Trade unions should be able not just to stand up for workers as individuals but to negotiate individual workplace agreements.”

But how does that dovetail with Labour’s plans to introduce sectoral collective bargaining across the economy to determine a “rate for the job” that stops employers undercutting each other on pay?

“Sectoral collective bargaining will be a floor, not a ceiling,” Pidcock stresses. “What’s so important is the organising principle. An organised workforce, a trade-unionised workforce, is a better-paid workforce and one with a far greater say in how their workplaces are run.”

Empowering trade unions means scrapping the Trade Union Act and modernisation of the rules around balloting for industrial action.

“We are going to remove unnecessary restrictions on industrial action. Workers don’t like going on strike, it’s always a last resort, but current law makes it extremely complicated to withdraw your labour and that should be a basic democratic right.

“We’re backing workplace and electronic balloting. We want democracy in the workplace. When we’re done democracy won’t be something you get every two or five years in a general election but an ordinary part of your working life.”

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