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What do Scottish trade unions want?

JANE CAROLAN explains how the new Charter of Workers’ Rights for Scotland aims to address the needs of the 21st-century Scottish workforce

AS the consultation on a Charter of Workers’ Rights for Scotland is launched at this STUC Congress, there needs to be a clear focus on the future of workers’ rights here.

What do Scottish trade unions want? In a world where even Theresa May mentions trade union rights, Scottish trade unions need to be very clear to the Scottish government, asserting what we mean by workers’ rights, and demanding effective means by which government commitments and the obligations of employers are to be monitored and enforced. 

Though labour law is a reserved matter for Westminster at present, here in Scotland there are opportunities to be exploited. 

Recent years have seen initiatives such as the Fair Work Convention and the production of Fair Work Action Plans, most recently in February 2019, encompassing a variety of measures to support and promote trade unionism.  

The Scottish government also actively promotes the payment of the real living wage in Scotland, with public-sector employers, including by its contractors.  

However public bodies are unable to mandate contractors pay the living wage — either generally or specifically to those of its employees engaged on public contracts — and in the private sector employers are “encouraged” to be living wage accredited.

Admirable as these initiatives are, they are constrained by the desire to please everyone. 

This is most noticeable in the wish to develop a “business case” for workers’ rights. 

Workers’ rights do not depend on the wishes of employers. Bad employers will never be persuaded that it is good for business to pay a decent wage, provide regular hours or recognise a trade union. What is missing is a sense of urgency about the implementation of the goals set. 

The Charter of Workers’ Rights for Scotland goes beyond that. Written by leading academics and trade unionists, in consultation with Scottish trade unions, the Charter examines what progress has been made on trade union and workers’ rights by the Scottish government, and examines the framework within which major improvements could be achieved. 

It aims to stimulate trade union debate in the current climate to identify concrete proposals that will begin to address the needs of the 21st-century Scottish workforce, facing increasingly precarious conditions of work and poverty pay, and to rebalance the rights of unions to organise, represent and bargain. 

Author Professor Ruth Dukes commented: “This Charter is a contribution to the ongoing future of labour law in Scotland. It aims to demonstrate how workers’ rights can be used to create fair, secure, democratic and productive conditions of work that will diminish inequality and benefit the national economy.”

Moreover, the Charter seeks to clearly identify measures to ensure that employers are required to comply with various standards, rather than benchmarking to mark their own homework or by a vague commitment by the Scottish government “to monitor progress.” 

Dr Chris McCorkindale adds: “Recognising the current constitutional settlement, there is nonetheless more that can be done, bringing trade unions into government, identifying a framework of workers’ rights, and developing strategies for implementation. 

“We need to move beyond the aspirational to the concrete, starting with a Scottish cabinet secretary for labour, and modern sectoral collective bargaining.” 

Proposals on implementation are developed in the Charter, to enable government to promote and develop the rights of workers in Scotland as set out in various international treaties; in the devolved government context, government has both a responsibility and an opportunity to take the initiative where there is need to be met. 

Both academics will address the STUC Dundee fringe meeting in the Caird Hall, today at 12.30pm, alongside leading Scottish trade unionists. Following this meeting, all trade unions have been invited to take part in a consultation exercise over the coming months to formulate trade union demands on rights and enforcement.

After 40 years of neoliberal economics, there is a need for real progress to redress the balance of power in the workplace, and to begin to reduce the levels of inequality that disfigure our society. 

Trade unions have a proven track on both counts, where they have the tools they need to do the job. The Charter starts the debate about how we get them. 

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

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