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Trade Unions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:26 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Monks Lord Monks Labour 12:26 pm, 18th July 2019

My Lords, I am delighted to follow my noble friend Lord Jordan and I congratulate him on his enterprise in initiating this debate. In so doing I also congratulate the ILO on its 100th anniversary. During that century, as the last surviving League of Nations institution, the ILO, as my noble friend said, has been fundamental in establishing the concept and details of human rights in the workplace and upholding the dignity of people at work. Its core conventions, with commitments to eradicating forced labour, child labour and unfair discrimination have been important influences in many countries—unfortunately, not all—and also influential has been the continuous campaign to promote trade union rights and decent work as part of the UN human rights framework. The ILO has been able to hold Governments who breach these rights to public account, and so expose abuses. It did this famously in Poland when Solidarność was carrying the torch of freedom in the Soviet era, and did it on a more modest scale in the UK, criticising aspects of the Thatcher era anti-trade union legislation. The ILO also works to secure labour rights in trade agreements: that is likely to be crucial in any post-Brexit free trade agreements that are to be negotiated.

The ILO is run on tripartite principles—unions, Governments and employers working together and, historically, coming up with plans that command consent among the three parties. These principles of tripartism became the basis of post-war reconstruction in most of western Europe after the Second World War. It is a proud achievement of the ILO that the European social model, as it is called, is rooted in the ILO conventions and principles. The approval this year of a convention on preventing violence and harassment at work shows that its system still works to help transform workers’ lives. I thank the ILO for all its work and I will be interested to hear the Government’s current view and how they are helping it, I hope, go from strength to strength for the next century.

Of course, the ILO has been affected by the pressures on trade unions in the last 40 years or so. My noble friend Lord Jordan spelled those out well and very interestingly in his contribution. It is clear that the rise of inequality from the early 1980s onwards has coincided with, and in part was caused by, the decline in trade union membership, and, more particularly, in the coverage of collective bargaining. Today in the UK only about one in four workers has their pay set by trade union negotiations. This retreat has meant that worker influence in companies has lessened. One result has been excessive pay levels in many boardrooms, as they have adopted a help-yourself, self-service practice, often unrelated to performance. The Conservative Government, through their anti-union laws restricting trade union freedoms, from the 1980s through to the Trade Union Act 2016, opened the door to unsavoury and unfair practices by unscrupulous, greedy employers—not all employers, but too many.

Conservative Governments ignored the fact that trade unions play a vital role in ensuring fair play at work. Union workplaces are safer, offer better training, provide more flexible working arrangements and are often more innovative. Their role in creating more equal societies has been endorsed by unlikely allies, such as the International Monetary Fund, the OECD and some central banks, which have come to recognise that strong unions can share out the productivity gains rather more fairly than if they do not exist. There has been some welcome recognition of this from Secretary of State Greg Clark in recent times, with the good work initiative, and plans on information and consultation to make it easier for workers to operate that. I wish him well in the future, and hope that in doing so, I do not seal his fate next week, when he faces his new boss in Downing Street.

What of the future? The UK needs a new settlement, which must involve progressive and responsible trade unionism, committed to raising productivity and performance, promoting long-termism and ensuring that the benefits of growth and the new digital technologies are distributed more fairly. The new settlement must promote a collaborative approach to work cultures, with a new emphasis on respect for workers and valuing their skills. I would like to see a concept of professionalism apply right through the labour force, not restricted to those with degrees and people with significant higher education experience.

I believe, as does the Labour Party, that to do this requires a reform in Whitehall, and the unification of labour market policy into a new, powerful department of work and employment, which would, among its other jobs, promote collective bargaining, a voice for working people and a high-skills, high-productivity agenda. A project of this kind will attract powerful enemies, but it will also attract wide support, including from the better employers. The cause is a great one. British workers must not be treated as second-class citizens. Already they are more vulnerable to job insecurity than those in some other advanced EU countries. Britain led the way in 1919-20 in establishing the ILO. We should take pride in its achievements. As my noble friend Lord Jordan said, many British trade unionists, as well as employers and government officials, have played a significant part in the organisation, going back to Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine in the early days, and latterly, as my noble friend said, the late Bill Brett, chair of the workers’ group. In the TUC, we take particular pride in the fact that the current director-general, Guy Ryder, is a former member of the TUC staff. This shows that Britain can lead the way. It needs to do so in a whole range of issues on the labour market as the ILO enters its second century.