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Trade Unions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:54 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Osamor Baroness Osamor Labour 1:54 pm, 18th July 2019

My Lords, it is a privilege and honour to speak in this debate, secured by my noble friend Lord Jordan, which marks the centenary of the International Labour Organization. While I am here today as a Labour Party Peer, in truth I would not have been here had it not been for the trade union movement.

Earlier this month, the Government published the UK voluntary national review of progress towards the UN sustainable development goals, or SDGs. The 17 SDGs were adopted by 193 member states in 2015 and are part of the United Nations 2030 agenda for sustainable development. Trade unions recognise the adoption of the SDGs as an historical landmark to uphold a universal agenda based on rights and encompassing the three dimensions of sustainable development.

My statement here will focus on the most crucial goal for working people: goal 8, which is about Governments promoting,

“sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”.

Key targets within that goal include:

“Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment”.

Achieving goal 8 is key to meeting several other SDGs, such as goal 5, on gender equality, goal 10, on reducing inequalities, and goal 16, on peace, justice and strong institutions.

My discussions with comrades in the trade union movement have identified considerable concern that the Government’s review of the SDGs lacks both an understanding of what decent work entails and the motivation to achieve it. In particular, it fails to acknowledge the central role that trade unions must play if we are to reduce labour market inequalities and precarious employment, and meet the SDGs, achieving decent work for all.

The voluntary national review is full of familiar claims of high levels of employment and of pay “stability”, albeit over short timeframes. But there is no acknowledgement of the scourge of insecure work and the lack of training opportunities for many workers. An honest account of working life in the UK would note that: real pay remains lower than it was before the recession and is not expected to get back to that pre-crisis level until 2023; a quarter of workers are offered no training other than a new starter induction; workers report crippling insecurity caused by the widespread use of zero-hours or short-hours contracts, and the failure of employers to honour sick pay or holiday entitlements; and the UK still has one of the worst gender pay gaps in Europe, at 17.9%.

Work should provide people with security and fulfilment, but for too many people it is insecure and does not make ends meet. While the Conservatives boast about the recovery of employment, in truth our labour market is failing. Real-terms pay is still lower than it was before the global banking crisis in 2008, and jobs are increasingly low-skilled and insecure.

The Minister will be aware that the Labour Party has promised to establish a new ministry of Labour to ensure that there is a focus on training, reskilling and productivity. We will guarantee the right of every worker to access a union representative in their workplace, and we will turn case law into legislation by ensuring that workers in the gig economy receive the same rights as other employees. We will also make sure that our redundancy laws are in line with those in the rest of Europe, ensuring that British workers are a priority for international investors who want to do business in our country. Perhaps the Minister could confirm to the House that the Government will review their report to the UN to reflect the concerns I have raised on behalf of the trade union movement.

I have already spoken for some time but it would be remiss of me not to touch on SDGs 5 and 10—namely, the obligation on our Government to ensure that everyone, regardless of gender or ethnic background, feels an equal sense of belonging in the workplace. From my 40 years of representation and from recent conversations with comrades around the country, I know the critical role that our trade union representatives play in promoting equality in the workplace. These are our guardians of equality legislation. They negotiate with employers to put in place policies and procedures that advance equality and diversity. They challenge examples of discrimination, harassment and bullying in the workplace, ensuring that complaints are dealt with effectively and promptly by management and human resources teams. They also provide leadership and act as role models in their treatment of others.

Those in this House who have ever had a real job will be aware that equalities and other labour relations legislation can translate into action on the ground only when workers have access to people with the knowledge, skills and time to provide them with representation during times of difficulty—people who can pick up their cause and use the law to fight for their right to fair and equal treatment in the workplace.

This Government have often communicated their commitment to addressing inequalities and disparities in the workplace, including the introduction of gender pay reporting and the hotly anticipated introduction of race pay reporting legislation. Given that it is the primary role of trade unions to ensure that the legislation passed in these Houses is translated into action on the ground, can the Minister please tell the House, first, why the Government are doing so little to respond to the Taylor review proposals to support the trade union movement; and, secondly, if trade unions continue to decline, who will act as the guardians of equalities legislation in the workplace?

Finally, as one of the founding member states of the ILO, the United Kingdom has been a valued partner of the ILO since 1919. It has ratified 89 conventions, including the eight fundamental ILO conventions, and two protocols. A Labour Government will ensure that Britain abides by the global labour standards of the ILO conventions. I hope that this House will join all the workers of planet Earth in wishing the ILO a very happy centenary.