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Trade Unions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:59 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour 12:59 pm, 18th July 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Morris, and to commend the introduction to this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Jordan. On a personal basis, I was particularly touched that he mentioned Bill Brett’s contribution to the ILO. In the last few weeks of his life, Bill Brett was my roommate in Fielden House and I much respected him.

I declare my interests: I have been a member of the GMB for nearly 50 years—a bit longer than the noble Lord, Lord Goddard. I also share a role with the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, in relation to BALPA at this disappointing time.

This weekend, in my adopted county of Dorset, I shall be in Tolpuddle recalling the day nearly 200 years ago when a group of agricultural workers were imprisoned and deported for the simple reason that they had combined to discuss their wages. Regrettably, in some parts of the world, there are trade unionists and workers who are faced with even more stringent sanctions in this day and age. That is where the ILO and the international trade union movement need to play their role. In a globalised world, workers need to reach across frontiers, but so do institutions, such as the ILO, which support those workers. Over the two centuries since Tolpuddle, workers’ conditions and rights have not advanced in a straight line. Indeed, I would contend that here and in several other countries there has been a setback in recent years.

By the end of the 19th century, trade union and workers’ rights had prospered in a number of industrialised countries. At the end of the First World War, it was an important plank of the post-war settlement that the ILO was established and that workers’ rights were seen as part of that settlement to minimise conflict between the nations. A key part of this were the rules that governed not only the standards for workers but their right to associate and, at least to a limited extent, to withdraw their labour. Regrettably, almost immediately after that came a period of setback. In some countries, such as Germany and Spain, which had had strong trade unions, the fascist regimes suppressed them. In so-called workers’ states such as the Soviet Union, they were incorporated into the state and party apparatus. It took till after the Second World War for us to begin to rebuild an international trade union movement; for example, the British trade unions and the TUC helped rebuild the structure of trade unions in Germany and other countries on the continent.

Trade unions grew in strength in almost every industrialised country from the end of the Second World War until the 1980s. Since then, as others have said, there has been a decline; we need to examine the reasons for it, which I see as fourfold. First, there was a changing labour market, as has been referred to. The large places of work were destroyed in the 1980s, in this country and others, by technological change as well as political decisions. That made life for trade unions more difficult because not only is it harder to recruit in smaller workplaces but not having large bases can prevent them establishing their own local lay memberships and shop stewards on which they used to depend.

Secondly, more recently, we have had the move towards the gig economy, with irregular patterns of work, individualisation of contracts—if indeed there are any contracts—zero hours, minimum pay and so forth. For those workers, particularly the younger workers, the benefits of collective bargaining and trade union membership are not that obvious. This has been compounded by the outsourcing by large companies and the public sector of so much of their routine work, in particular. For example, just this morning I spoke to a social worker two miles away who is employed by a private company for Westminster Council. He works for 13 hours because he has to move between appointments but is actually paid for only six hours. That is the nature of the labour market in this country for millions of our workers. At the very rough end—we have just been talking about modern slavery—we saw only last week the impact in this country of European workers being gangmastered totally and utterly illegally, an increasing feature of parts of the labour market.

The third reason is, of course, globalisation, which has its benefits but also its setbacks. Here I focus on the situation in other countries as well: in the same way that we have exported carbon emissions, we have exported some of our bad labour practices. We have responsibilities as consumers here, because the cheap clothes and cheap food we get, which used to be produced in Europe, are now often made by those suffering appalling conditions in, for example, Bangladesh and China, yet we continue to buy them. Within multinational companies, which often pride themselves on standards, their own supply chains and sourcing also make use of those very poor workplaces.

However, there is a fourth reason: the failure of the unions themselves to successfully adapt. We must adapt to new technology and to some of the aspects of the changing labour market. Looking back in history, in the 1880s and the 1890s we saw the growth of new unionism, which created both my noble friend Lord Morris’s union and my own. It organised the manual workers who had largely been ignored by the craft unions. The unions needed to change and operate differently. They needed to accept different employment patterns and attitudes by the employers. We need a new unionism today. I hope the existing unions can adopt it but, if not, different organisations might have to do so.

The back-up to this is the role of the ILO and international standards. As we move away from the EU, with all its failings, we move away from an international labour standard-setting organisation. The ILO is the most important international one. It has its drawbacks and slowness, but it is vital. As we move to new trade arrangements around the world as so-called global Britain, the standards written into those trade agreements ought to be, as a minimum, those of the International Labour Organization, but they also need rather better enforcement. In this day and age it is quite difficult for the workers of the world to unite, and they need some support in uniting. The ILO has, for 100 years now, been that main support.