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Overcoming insecurity

Only the unions empowered by a Labour government can beat the scourge of zero-hour contracts, says TIM ROACHE

INSECURE work in this country goes right to the heart of our broken economy. Uncertainty over hours, how much you will get paid in a given month and whether you will even have a job in the near future plays havoc with people’s lives. Whether it’s the scandal of agency work, zero or short-hours contracts or bogus self-employment, all the pressure is on the worker and never the boss.

GMB and our sister unions see the human toll on our members and their workmates. It causes stress and ill-health, eats into people’s family life and time with friends as well as causing in-work poverty. It cuts deepest with those most disadvantaged by our unfair labour market — women, black and minority ethnic workers, disabled workers and the youngest and oldest workers.

I often hear Tory ministers paying lip service to mental health and their so-called ‘commitment to parity of esteem’ with physical health. It is bad enough that the Tories are denying the NHS the funding it needs, but they never look at some of the biggest causes of mental ill-health — what happens in the world of work.

All of us pay the price for unscrupulous employers abusing their workforce in the name of greater profits. Last year, 12.5 million days were lost due to work-related stress, depression and anxiety.

Then there’s the physical injuries and health problems from particular types of insecure work. Amazon have a warehouse in Rugeley in the West Midlands where ambulances have been called out 115 times over a three-year period.

In 1999 Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos wrote a memo to investors saying how he wanted Amazon employees to ‘wake up every morning terrified.’

Many of them are, which is why hundreds of them are joining GMB for security and support. Amazon’s profits almost trebled last year, but the tax they paid in the UK halved. Requiring NHS ambulances is factored into their business model with the public and workers picking up the tab.

The Tory Party doesn’t have a clue. Let’s take its Minister for Financial Inclusion. A few years back in a debate on zero hours contracts, Guy Opperman MP claimed he had been “unquestionably on a zero-hours contract” before becoming an MP. It turned out his experience was as a barrister where he charged £250 per hour. Do they all think we are stupid?

Theresa May’s Taylor Review predictably didn’t propose banning zero-hours contracts. Instead it simply talked about ‘the right to request’ not having a such a contract. The Tories know full well that this is a mirage. Meanwhile, GMB members get text messages on the bus into work and are told they are no longer needed.

And there are longer-term issues to tackle. Why would employers invest in decent training of a temporary workforce? Many insecure workers won’t be eligible for auto-enrolment of their pensions and this could mean even larger numbers requiring help from the state when they retire in the future.

We know insecure jobs intimidate workers and for some employers that is half its appeal.

Put your head above the parapet and you can be booted out the door in a flash. A permanent contract is treated as a rare commodity to be dangled like a bauble by management as the ultimate reward for good behaviour.

I am proud that GMB has been at the forefront of efforts to tackle insecure work. We’ve stood up to Uber, Hermes and Amazon. Other unions have had their successes too. That’s reason to be optimistic because we are standing tall as a movement and taking on those companies.

People don’t join a union in gratitude after you’ve won an industrial dispute. They join to be part of it. They join when we as a movement plant a flag in the ground to rally around and show exactly how we are going to make a difference.

Only a Labour government will take the required action in Parliament to give workers a meaningful say. Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto pledge for a new Ministry of Labour is a foundation stone on which we can build better workplaces and stamp out exploitation.

Labour also deserves praise for an agenda which grants unions the freedom to access and organise all workplaces and with greater ability to pursue agreements and collective bargaining. 

I believe unions and Labour together can stamp our insecure work and win a decisive victory for working people.

Tim Roache is general secretary of the GMB.

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