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Trade Unions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:12 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Jordan Lord Jordan Labour 12:12 pm, 18th July 2019

My Lords, it is a privilege to open this debate. The original purpose in seeking this debate was to allow this House to acknowledge and record the social progress brought to workers throughout the world by the creation of the International Labour Organization since it was created a century ago, and to show the part played by trade unions in that achievement. But in doing that, I suppose it is impossible for us not to wonder what changes the next 100 years will impose on the world of work, and in turn to consider what laws—and changes in the ways we represent and defend people at work—we will need here in the UK and internationally if we are to maintain and build on the advances that have been achieved for workers and their families.

The International Labour Organization first met in 1920, with Britain as a founding member. It was part of the Treaty of Versailles, created in the wake of the horrors of World War I. Its driving force was the belief that universal and lasting peace can be accomplished only if it is based on social justice. It heralded a unique international tripartite system of decision-making, where Governments, employers and trade unions were tasked with making the world of work a better place—a ground-breaking event at a time when there were no accepted “workers’ rights”.

The ILO’s agenda was a set of principles, among which was the right to freedom of association for working people to form and join trade unions. Its early years are not remembered as years of social progress, as that period was dominated by the great depression and culminated in the even more devastating calamity of the Second World War, but the ILO’s considerable contribution to the development of social justice was acknowledged when in 1946 its role was strengthened as it became the first specialised agency of the United Nations.

In 1969 the ILO was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, reinforcing the truth in its founding message of the immutable link between peace and social justice. Over the years the great and the good—popes, presidents, statesmen and kings—have addressed its conferences, all testifying to the powerful force for good the ILO has proved to be. In the post-war years, the ILO has grown in reputation by leading in the fight against great social injustices, such as apartheid, child labour and modern slavery. By its adoption of a comprehensive range of international labour standards it has created a floor of rights for the working world and become the world’s standard bearer for what it defines as decent work.

There are many Members of this House, past and present, who have contributed to the work of the ILO and many who have in addition served the trade union movement with distinction here and abroad. I had the honour of being the president of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union in this country, but it was in my role as general secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions that I first started to work with the ILO and understand the value of its crucial work. My job with the ICFTU was to represent trade unions across the world, whose combined membership at that time was 165 million. The firefighting part of the job was taking solidarity and support to trade union movements in individual countries, particularly those where trade unions were facing repression, such as Colombia where hundreds of trade unionists were being murdered every year; and helping to organise and lead demonstrations against severe social injustices, such as the march through Moscow against the prolonged non-payment of 20 million workers in Putin’s Russia.

The “building the future” part of the job was taking the social justice aims of the world’s trade unions and turning them into international labour standards through the ILO. There was an urgency at that time to see them embedded as social clauses within the programmes of United Nations institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, because, as the globalisation of trade unfolded, the programmes of those institutions were having disastrous consequences for millions of workers and their families in developing countries.

The International Trade Union Confederation, which was formerly the ICFTU, works to ensure that worker delegates at the ILO are organised to vote for new standards and in turn are encouraged to lobby their national Governments and employers for support. It is a tough assignment, and when I was tasked with it, the job was made a lot easier by the formidable presence of the late Lord Brett, who was chairman of the ILO workers group. That game plan continues and has produced excellent results. It is helped by the fact that the ILO has significantly raised its profile and performance under the impressive leadership of its present director-general Mr Guy Ryder, a former British trade unionist.

Trade unions in all countries are now facing new challenges and seemingly intractable problems. The past 40 years have seen a maelstrom of change that has radically impacted on people’s working lives everywhere, starting with the globalisation of trade which saw 2 billion people brought into the competitive rat race they call world trade. When combined with the dramatic advances in science and technology and, in particular, information technology, that became a catalyst for a chain reaction of change that has totally altered the working world that many of us in this House stepped into. Gone are the jobs for life that we expected, the predictable tools that our fathers—and sometimes our grandfathers—used and the regular hours of work. It is change that is not slowing but accelerating.

They say we are entering the fourth industrial revolution. Who can doubt it, when coming to a workplace near you are artificial intelligence, the internet of things, 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality, 5G and, just around the corner, quantum computing? This whirlwind of disruption has taken its toll on worker representation in most countries, and nowhere more so than here in Britain, the birthplace of trade unionism.

In 1979, with more than 13 million members, the British trade unions were more powerful than any trade union movement has ever been before or since. They used that power to significantly advance the standard of life of this country’s workers and their families. Yes, there were some abuses of that exceptional power, but always with the connivance of pusillanimous employers. Contrary to popular folklore, it was not Mrs Thatcher’s anti-union laws that destroyed the trade union’s big battalions; it was her catastrophic economic policy which was responsible for the dismantling of Britain’s wealth-creating manufacturing industry and, with it, the destruction of millions of jobs. However, the damage to trade union membership was severe and saw the start of a longer-term decline.

For employees in this country now, the world of work has never been more precarious or the need for strong trade union representation more urgent. The British TUC has done an excellent job not only in stemming the long-term decline in trade union membership but in starting to reverse it. However, the long-term trend in trade union membership density now demands even more radical ideas on recruitment and the servicing of members. Let there be no illusions about the magnitude of that challenge.

We were told in this Chamber earlier this week that there are 5.7 million small businesses in this country and that 96% of businesses employed fewer than 10 people. That is not fertile recruitment ground with our present trade union structures. We cannot change business structures, so we must change the way we do things. New technology, particularly communication technology, is shaping the world employees work in. That same technology can and must be used to enable trade unions to talk to them, recruit them and even serve them. Some might say it is impossible. I ask them to look again at the world of modern technology. It is delivering the impossible every year.

Even when British trade unionism is rebuilt—and it will be—there is another dimension that must be part of that rebuilding: the strengthening of the working relationships between national and international trade unions. Trade unions at national level do not always see the relevance of the work of international trade unions to the local struggles they face. I tell them, as I tell this House, that the relentless rise in the size and power of modern multinationals means that not even European laws will offer protection. These companies will move a successful company to the other side of the world in the blink of an eye if there is a penny more profit. Today’s multinationals are trading nomads and predators that can and do run rings around all Governments. Only when there is no country they can move to that does not have a floor of international workers’ rights will the rights we have won be safe. The ILO has spelled out that floor of rights in its centenary declaration on the future of work. It includes ensuring that all workers, regardless of status, enjoy fundamental workers’ rights: maximum working time limits; an adequate minimum wage; occupational health and safety; full gender equality at work; and equality for people with disabilities. Here are the civilising restraints that must bind the multinationals’ capricious activities.

This debate is about the real value that trade unionism has brought and can still bring to society. We live in a world where more than 700 million people still live in extreme poverty, where 60% of the world’s workers are stuck in the informal economy, where there are more than 200 million child labourers, where 2.8 million people die every year due to work-related sickness and accidents and about 40 deadly conflicts are being played out at any one time. The ILO was created 100 years ago in a world that desperately needed the labour standards it went on to set. The world still needs them now. Britain became the birthplace of trade unionism because they were needed then. The future of work tells us that we still need strong trade unions. When do we need them? What other answer is there to that but “now”. I hope that the Minister agrees.