The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-18479, in the name of Pauline McNeill, on Asda Walmart contract imposition. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament notes reports that Asda Walmart is seeking to impose new contracts on its predominately female supermarket workforce, under threat of dismissal; understands that the new contracts remove provision for paid breaks, reduce night shift premiums, reduce holidays and introduce a new flexibility clause giving the employer the ability to alter days, hours, rota start and finish times, with corresponding salary change simply reflective of rising legal minimums; notes the view of GMB Scotland that Asda Walmart’s actions run counter to all principles of the Scottish Government’s Fair Work agenda and that it should seek to address whatever business case it has for making such cuts to terms and conditions by negotiation with GMB Union, and that, if this is not possible, Asda Walmart’s next step should be mediation under the auspices of ACAS, not the imposition of detrimental changes of terms and conditions on the thousands of working class women in Scotland employed in its supermarkets; understands that the backdrop to Asda Walmart’s actions is the long-running issue of equal pay for supermarket workers, and notes the calls from across the political spectrum in Scotland for Asda Walmart to take the threat of dismissal off the table for all of its staff who decline to sign up to a new contract that they fear will make them poorer.
I declare an interest as a member of the GMB union.
I begin by welcoming to the public gallery Robert Deavy, who is a union organiser for GMB, and all the Asda workers who have come here to represent the workers.
Asda Walmart is one of the United Kingdom’s largest supermarket chains. We all know “Asda price” and George low-cost fashion; I am sure that we have all shopped at Asda at one time or another. Asda’s corporate web page describes the company as a company of “pioneering people” and says that
“From checkout to boardroom, our colleagues are the heroes”.
They certainly are.
The website goes on to say:
“Every one of us shapes the character of this company.”
The character of those men and women means that they have stood firm against Asda’s blackmail, which seeks to enforce poorer terms and conditions against their will. We in Labour admire that, and we stand in solidarity with those workers.
I put on the record my thanks to the members of the Scottish National Party and the Green Party who signed my motion, and to Chris Stephens, the SNP MP for Glasgow South West, who has lodged a similar motion in the House of Commons. The First Minister herself has called on Asda to get around the table to agree a positive resolution.
Asda is in dispute with its mainly female workforce over the enforcement of dramatically inferior terms and conditions. It may look like an ordinary dispute that may seem to be none of our business. However, every part of it is our business. It is our business because it is significant to any politician who cares about fairness at work and protecting quality jobs.
At the heart of this dreadful dispute is a female workforce who feel discriminated against, as the mainly male distribution workers have not been affected by the dispute. Women workers have been the backbone of the company. They are less likely to be organised in the same way as the distribution workers. They are likely to have caring and parental responsibilities and they are probably balancing their family commitments with their working lives.
Two years ago, Asda Walmart offered its workers a voluntary contract known as “contract 6”, with new conditions for an hourly increase of £1 an hour. After the contract’s introduction, the pay differential was only 63 pence, and only 15 per cent of the workforce accepted it. I wonder why.
On 15 April, Asda removed the choice from its workers and threatened them with dismissal if they did not sign up to the terms of the contract. As I speak, thousands have still not signed up and face the sack—they have a gun to their heads. Some have obviously signed the contract because they are thinking about their families.
Asda intends to remove provisions for paid breaks, reduce night-shift premiums and holiday entitlement and, crucially, create a new flexibility clause with a right to alter the workers’ days, hours and shifts. Above all else, I want to say to Asda that it has failed to understand that it has removed the certainty that workers who are carers and parents need. People who are facing the reorganisation of their lives to accommodate altered hours of work have been given a significant burden.
For most people, night shifts affect their health. They are unsociable and should attract a premium rate. Is it any wonder that only 15 per cent signed up for an extra pound an hour when there is a reduction in holiday entitlement at a time when Britain should be expanding its holiday entitlement?
The introduction of more flexible working hours at short notice is the key point. That is exactly the pernicious aspect of low-paid employment that serves no company well. It leads to an unstable workforce and, in the end, is costly because companies lose staff—there is evidence to show that. Workers need and are entitled to security in their working lives. Those who do not accept Asda’s conditions face dismissal at midnight on 2 November, which is shocking.
A significant number of the staff concerned are older workers who have been with the company for a long time. I have met many of the workers over the past few days, including outside the chamber today. Some of them have been with Asda for 25 or 26 years. They value the routine—they value the company. In the past, Asda has been an excellent company—as a former GMB organiser, I know that to be true.
The GMB has won commitments and there have been some improvements, but they do not go far enough. In a recent ballot, 93 per cent of those who participated rejected the terms. The GMB union believes that thousands of workers face the sack as we get closer to the deadline.
The fear and alarm created by managers who have been leafleting staff and displaying notices saying that the changes will be forced on them have unfortunately created very poor working relationships with the workforce, as members would expect. That is a casualty of the dispute.
Let me give a typical example. A male worker works days and his wife works night in the same store so that they can look after their 16-month-old baby. They have now received termination notices from Asda. Their lives have been turned upside down and they both face losing their jobs.
Members might think that Asda is in financial trouble and that that is perhaps why it is doing this, but that is not so. In September, Asda announced a jump in profits of £92 million and bonuses all round for its mostly male directors. The company does not even have a good reason for saying that it will enforce these dramatically inferior conditions.
The new contract represents another step on the road to eroding hard-fought-for terms and conditions. By engaging with the GMB and offering decent conditions, Asda can help to maintain the bar that has been set for good-quality employment.
This is not just about Asda and a dispute; it is about what we care about for working people across the country. If we lose to companies such as Asda, which thinks that it is acceptable to treat its workforce in this way, that will set the bar for other companies to do the same. We must stand firm for that reason.
I implore Asda to work with the GMB and its dedicated workforce to find a way forward and to value the men and women who have helped to make the company what it is today. [Applause.]
I ask people in the public gallery to refrain from showing appreciation or otherwise, no matter how strongly they feel. We now move to the open debate, with speeches of up to four minutes.
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests and to my membership of the GMB trade union.
I thank Pauline McNeill for securing this important debate. The message that we are sending out from Parliament tonight is that, in this battle between low-paid, long-serving and—let me spell it out—predominantly women workers, and a company that is owned by the richest billionaires on the planet, we are taking sides. We are on the side of the workers. We are not debating tonight whether we support them or not; we are getting right behind the union and these working women and men in their hour of need in their struggle for justice.
In so doing, we are making a clear and unequivocal statement. When we in the Labour Party talk of a redistribution of wealth and power, this is precisely what we mean and why we need it. It cannot be right that a dynasty of power and wealth is able to deny industrious working people the simple right to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. It is not just about the price of labour; it is about the dignity of labour.
When we talk of the need for an economy that works for the many, not the few, this is what we mean, and why we need it. When we explain the urgent need to halt rising economic inequality between the idle rich and the working poor, this dispute at Asda Walmart is a perfect example of what we mean and why we need to act. When we in the Labour Party call on all workers to join trade unions, this is precisely why. We are stronger when we stick together; we can have all the employment rights and all the laws in the world but, unless there is a trade union to enforce them, they are just words on a page.
The actions of Asda Walmart amount to industrial blackmail. Threatening those thousands of workers with the sack if they do not agree to work longer hours for lower wages with shorter breaks and fewer holidays is not a choice—it is the bullying of workers by an employer and it should be outlawed once and for all. As the GMB has said:
“The choice of signing up for a cut in terms and conditions of employment or no job is no choice at all”.
I cannot help wondering: would Asda Walmart have imposed the same ultimatum on a group of workers who were predominantly male, rather than a group who are predominantly female?
I have been inspired by the workers They have stood up and spoken up for themselves, which is why I joined them on their protest at Toryglen, why I joined their demonstration at the Parkhead Forge store a couple of weeks ago and why I met the delegation to Parliament earlier this afternoon. It is also why I say that what is happening makes us in the Labour Party even more determined that we must create not an economy that works just for billionaires at the top, but an economy that works for all. That is the vision of the future that we offer people. It is a vision of the future that we believe is worth fighting for.
I thank Pauline McNeill for bringing this very important issue to the chamber.
I will speak specifically about a local angle in the overall debate, which is the impact on my constituents who are Asda employees, some of whom arranged to meet me in mid-August. We have had an Asda in Coatbridge for decades now and it is keeping the old High Street afloat almost single-handedly, because other businesses tend to go to the nearby Faraday Park. The Asda store is a place with some good memories for me as I had my first job there. I was still at school at the time but was working on the check-outs and have fond memories of that. I have to say that that was, unfortunately, around 1998. I tell members that not to give away my age but to make the point that some of the workers who met me a couple of months ago have been with the Asda store since I worked there. Pauline McNeill and Richard Leonard also highlighted that point about the workers’ long service.
We can debate all day long whether what the Asda workers have been offered is a good deal or a bad deal—I am sure that there are points for either argument. However, a consistent theme is that many of the people, like those who came to me, who are highlighting the issue to their union representatives share some of the same history. I know that others have said this, but it is worth stating again that most of those people are long-term, loyal workers who have not moved elsewhere. It was women who came to see me and remembered working with me in 1998—the vast majority of those Asda workers are female and they often have caring responsibilities for their own children or grandchildren, or elderly relatives.
Asda has always been seen as a good place for working-class women to be employed and balance their life around their job. However, what I picked up in my meeting with the workers was a shared feeling about not being treated with respect or as part of the Asda family, rather than a feeling about the deal not being a great one. It was sad for me to hear that and I did not recognise from what was said the place that I worked in all those years ago. There are therefore concerns around equality and it is our job here to address them head on. It is about fairness, which is why I decided to speak in the debate.
Following the meeting that I referred to, I wrote to the manager of Coatbridge Asda, with whom I have a very good relationship. Asda does a lot of great community work locally through its green token scheme and in other ways. I am grateful for the support that Asda has given to a lot of charitable organisations in Coatbridge and Chryston. The manager wrote back to me quickly and addressed some of the points that I had raised. He talked about an increase in the hourly rate to £9 an hour, through a consultation with the GMB and others; minimising the impact of unpaid breaks; no one being expected to work all bank holidays; the holiday on 2 January remaining a bank holiday; and, what is probably important, trebling the length of the transitional payment period from six months to 18 months.
The Asda management also said that it did not agree with the GMB’s view that it was forcing the new contract on people. However, I come back to the management on that today and say that it might not agree with the GMB, but that is clearly what people feel. The people who came to meet me feel that, as do the people who Pauline McNeill and others have met. Surely Asda, given its size and its responsibility to its workers, needs to address that concern, even if it feels that it has not done what is causing the concern.
Like others, including the First Minister, I call on Asda to get back round the table with the GMB, which is quite a simple request. I ask Asda not to put on the line, because of the new contract, its good reputation from all the good work that it does in the community. I ask it to get back to speaking to its workers.
I refer members to my declaration of interests. I am a member of the GMB MSP group.
I thank the GMB because it has, in the Diageo dispute in the past four weeks, through forceful action in representing its members and a public campaign, got Diageo back at the table in order to get a fairer deal for its workers. As in that dispute, it has, in order to get fairness and justice for Asda workers, spoken truth to power and brought together people across the wider labour movement.
The debate is really all about speaking out in favour of Asda employees who face the most appalling attitude and behaviour from their employer. To put things in context, Asda turned over £22 billion in 2018 and reported a profit of more than £800 million. That profit was possible only because of the hard work of each and every single one of its employees, but those same employees who helped to generate that profit now face accepting new contracts with poorer terms and conditions being imposed on them, or being threatened with the sack.
As other members have said, Asda has stated that any workers who are unwilling to agree to or accept the poorer terms and conditions will be sacked. It is a choice: a cut in pay and conditions, bank holiday premiums going, long-service holidays being lost, the night window being shortened, which will lead to poorer pay, and a flexible contract that delivers flexibility only for Asda but not for the employees, or no job at all. That is no choice. We know that, the 12,000 affected employees know it, and Asda executives know it, too.
It is important to set the context that we are in the lead-up to Christmas. To make people—people who are worried about Christmas, about putting something on the table for their family and about having the joy that Christmas brings in reaching out and supporting other family members—choose, at that difficult time, between carrying on and losing their terms and conditions and losing their job altogether, is unacceptable and disgusting. However, even now, Asda is trying to drive through the change, despite more than nine out of every 10 employees having rejected it in the consultative ballot.
Concessions have been hard won, thanks to the GMB’s efforts in the face of intransigence from Asda. I wrote to Asda to express my concern about the imposed changes. Its response utterly failed to acknowledge the serious concerns that have been raised by the GMB union and individual employees, who related concerns directly to me.
The picture that Asda is now presenting to employees, the GMB, members of the Scottish Parliament and the public is very different from the image that it seeks to present to the communities in which it is based. At every turn, it seeks to show that it is committed to those communities; it seeks to show a company that is rooted in supporting worthy causes and charities. Fulton MacGregor rightly mentioned the green token scheme. I did a search. In the past three years, 190 motions have been lodged by MSPs to congratulate Asda on its community work. It is important to recognise that that community work was hard work and effort by employees, rather than by executives elsewhere.
If Asda wants us to continue to celebrate its positive activities in its communities, and wants us to continue to help it to give positive public relations messages in Parliament and our communities, it has to give justice to its workers. It has to get back round the table, as the GMB is willing to do, and provide for those loyal long-serving and dedicated staff, who have made it the company that it is.
The UK’s retail sector has been fast evolving in recent years, and it has seen big changes. Companies have been taken over by other companies and, in some cases, that has led to empty units and redundancies, or individual branches being lost. However, in some of the worst and most damaging cases, we have seen businesses disappear entirely from our high streets. Great established names including Woolworths, Thomas Cook recently, and others, have been lost because those businesses failed to adapt to changing times.
There is, of course, more positive news, with new competitors entering the marketplace, but Scotland’s retail sector remains in a precarious position, largely because consumers are changing how they consume. In a number of retail stores, particularly in the groceries sector, there has been a significant rise in the number of transactions that are carried out through automated checkouts. There has also been a growth in online shopping. Some companies have focused on smaller community stores, where shoppers shop for the immediate present and not for the longer term. All those things are because consumers are changing how they shop, and retailers have to respond. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, those changes have led, in some cases, to losses in the number of positions in retail.
In communities such as those in my region of the Highlands and Islands, the supermarkets can be among the largest private sector employers. They also contribute to the wider economy as well as involving themselves with the local society and organisations through their charitable work, as we have heard.
However, let us look at the current issue that brings us here today. I am grateful to both Asda and the GMB for the information that they provided. The issue revolves around an on-going dispute between the GMB union, in particular, and Asda, which resulted from the company bringing to an end its legacy contracts, and bringing six different contracts into one. Asda argues that similar changes have occurred across supermarket chains in the UK in recent times, that it is the last major supermarket to have held out on legacy contracts, and that the vast majority of its staff are signed up to the new contract.
I understand that a consultation took place, which involved the GMB union as well as Asda’s national colleague-voice representatives, and that those discussions brought about a number of important changes to the contract. What were the changes that Asda made? They include transitional payment arrangements that provide additional protections to—for example—night-shift workers, who might otherwise, as has been mentioned, have been affected by changes in unsociable hours provisions. The changes also include provisions in the flexibility clause and changes to do with issues around breaks and bank holiday working.
Of course, there are still outstanding issues. The GMB union has made that clear, and I have asked Asda to respond to a number of the GMB’s concerns. It does not sound like a business that is not willing to listen to or act with the union.
Of course, it is absolutely right that trade unions focus on the outcomes for employees, and that they meet their responsibility to work on behalf of their members. However, in any such dispute, it is important that they also listen to the business—to the employer.
Unfortunately, I do not have time.
It is also important to ensure that the common interest in the sustainability of jobs and the wider competitiveness of the company—which should interest both the business and the union—is taken into account.
Despite the current dispute, the GMB union said that Asda has “traditionally” been seen as
“a source of decent employment” for its colleagues, particularly for those who have family commitments or other jobs. I also understand that employee satisfaction in the business has generally been high.
Of course, there is a fairness issue around legacy contracts. If six different contracts are in place, people will be working in stores and other facilities, doing the same job, but under different conditions. To me, that sounds inherently problematic.
The GMB expressed concern about the flexibility of the work. It is, of course, down to Asda to provide it with the reassurance that workers’ interests and circumstances will be reflected under the new contract. The business has stated that it will always take those circumstances into account before it changes working patterns or departments, and it has given what it termed “a clear commitment” not to use flexibility provisions in the new contract in order to reduce working hours. If it is maintained, that commitment will address some of the concerns that have been raised by the GMB about flexibility being used to reduce hours, thereby offsetting the pay rise that is part of the new contract, and will instead benefit colleagues. However, the company’s management must, of course, build trust with their colleagues on those points.
Ultimately, this is a dispute between employers and a trade union. Asda is seeking to adapt to changing conditions, and the GMB is looking to ensure the best conditions for its members. It is right that they continue to engage and consider their priorities.
In any negotiated process, neither side will get entirely what it wants. However, I have seen some of the additional assurances that have been given, and I believe that they are positive steps.
I thank Pauline McNeill for raising the issue and securing the debate.
Listening to the past four or five minutes of the debate has made me angry, because this is about decent conditions—not the best working conditions in the universe, but decent conditions so that people can sustain part-time employment, continue to look after their kids and have caring responsibilities, and work hard for a company that some have been loyal to for decades. The workers have been told to sign up to something that puts their lives and their capacity to work for the company at risk or to leave. That is not much of a choice, is it?
For many women, retail jobs are crucial. They are reliable jobs in our community. Shift working can provide flexibility, enabling people to work part time while having other responsibilities. However, there is all the difference in the world between people having flexibility in their working terms and their having uncertainty in their shifts, being told what to do and not being able to negotiate.
We have to look at the wider picture. Last year, I attended a fantastic briefing by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation when it published a report on how to reduce poverty. One of its key conclusions was that, for women in particular, jobs with decent, reliable salaries and terms and conditions that they can predict are a crucial aspect of their being able to work part time and be loyal to their company.
In the gig economy, uncertain working conditions and low wages are leading to more poverty. People who have worked hard throughout their lives and who want to earn money to support their families and pay the bills are being pushed into poverty.
As others have said, a large supermarket company such as Asda is a key part of our retail sector and should be expected to lead the way on fair employment and decent pay for its staff. The briefing that we have for the debate says that Asda is moving to pay the living wage next year. I have heard companies say that before. They say that they are moving to pay the living wage, but they then say to the staff that they will have to work more hours for fewer holidays, so the terms and conditions are worse. That is not what we expect of decent employers who are looking to pay the living wage.
It is the 11th hour—the terms are being imposed on 2 November—but there is still time for the company to negotiate and change course. Any changes should not apply to only one or two people; Asda should look at the terms and conditions and accept that they are not right. There is still time to take pressure off people, who have no alternative employment in the run-up to Christmas.
We need to acknowledge that even minor changes to jobs and salaries can have negative impacts. It is not just about having less money to pay bills or having sustainable employment; it is also about the potential issue of part-time workers who are entitled to benefits and have had stability but who end up in the maelstrom of universal credit. People can lose the benefits to which they have been entitled previously, so this is more than just an internal issue for Asda.
I thank the GMB and its members, who have lobbied us over the past few weeks. It was great to meet people outside Parliament this afternoon, in the bitter cold, to hear what the changes will mean for them. They will lose a 15-minute break when they are working for hours on their feet, and they have found out that their night-shift entitlement will no longer start at 10 pm and finish at 6 am, but will start at midnight and finish at 5 am. This is the 21st century, and those are not acceptable conditions. None of us in here would accept them, and nobody should have to accept them. We are talking about Walmart, one of our biggest retail conglomerates. It is deeply disappointing to see it push terms and conditions down.
Like many colleagues, I welcome the briefings that we get on the good charitable work and environmental initiatives that Asda does, but what a way to reward the loyal staff who deliver those initiatives. A company such as Asda has the chance—no; it has the responsibility—to lead best practice, not start a race to the bottom.
I accept that there are challenges in the retail sector. More needs to be done to ensure fairness across the sector in relation to online suppliers, and there needs to be more support for our town centres and for regeneration. I ask Asda to take a step back, listen to its staff and their representatives and think about the loyalty, commitment and hard work that should be acknowledged across the company. I ask that it does not just look at the short-term bottom line, which, by the way, is doing well at the moment.
I thank Pauline McNeill for bringing this outrageous attack on workers for debate. I have been genuinely inspired by most of the contributions to the debate so far, but I am left wondering how long it took Walmart’s public relations team to write Jamie Halcro Johnston’s speech for him.
It is an affront to basic dignity that those who have worked so hard to make Asda an incredibly profitable company now face being sacked unless they sign up to terms that are worse than those that they are currently on.
Without its workers, Asda would be nothing. No shelves would be stacked, no sales would be processed and no customers would be assisted. However, the largely female workforce now faces the removal of paid breaks, a requirement to work more bank holidays and the loss of regular shift patterns. On the other hand, Asda’s bosses have been enjoying the fruits of their workers’ labours. The bonuses have certainly been flowing around the directors’ table.
Anyone with caring responsibilities knows how important regular shifts, in particular, are. Time and effort go into planning life and balancing work and home commitments—never mind leisure time—and those plans face disruption for the benefit of an employer. That is even more the case for single parents or for families in which both parents work for Asda.
To threaten staff with the sack if they do not accept the new contracts is not just disrespectful but an open display of contempt for those whose work has meant that Asda could report a rise in profits of almost £100 million just last month. It is a case of worse conditions for workers being imposed with the threat of sackings, and rewards for bosses. That is the worst type of corporate behaviour, but it is far from rare.
The GMB has done a great job in fighting for workers. I might have some significant differences with the union in other areas, but I must credit it for first-class organising in this instance. It has organised its members, negotiated some concessions and made this a national issue in Scotland and across the UK, adding public and parliamentary scrutiny to the actions of Asda’s directors. Regardless of how the dispute ends, it has been another powerful example to workers in retail and across every other sector that the only way to effectively defend pay and conditions is to do so collectively through trade unions.
The behaviour of Asda’s bosses begs the question why this is even tolerated in this country. The very nature of corporate greed and the capitalist system means that bosses will push to worsen working conditions in pursuit of more profits for themselves. However, the ability to issue very real threats of sacking staff who do not acquiesce is not inherent to capitalism; it is a feature of UK employment law, which includes some of the most hostile provisions in Europe. Intentionally weak protections against dismissals and decades of legislation that was designed to undermine trade unions have led us to this situation. After all, the issue is not restricted to Asda. Plenty of employers are using unscrupulous tactics against their workers right now—just look at the bogus self-employment that is rife across the construction sector and which has been made so high profile recently by companies such as Deliveroo. If we want an economy that works for everyone and in which fairness is embedded as a central principle, we need a transformation in workers’ rights and labour relations.
In August, the Scottish Greens launched our green new deal, which weds the urgent need to tackle the climate crisis with restructuring our economy by redressing the current imbalance between workers and bosses. Those are two sides of the same coin. The corporate greed that seeks to drive down working conditions is the same corporate greed that is stripping the planet of its natural resources and literally burning our home before our eyes. That is why we need to reform how corporations are run. We need to ensure that workers are represented properly on boards and in decision-making processes—a demand that would preferably be part of a transition to more radical forms of employee and co-operative ownership. We must ensure that corporations such as Asda cannot simply choose to end negotiations with unions whenever it pleases them, and that we expand collective bargaining across sectors, strengthening the hands of often divided workforces. We need to ensure that workers are involved in the formation of industrial and economic strategy, ensuring investment in everyone’s living standards and quality of life.
The resistance of Asda workers to the contracts is admirable; they certainly have the Greens’ support for their campaign. However, until the law in this country changes, we will be here time and again. That would be a terrible disservice to the workers and unions here today, who are fighting so hard for their rights and their dignity.
I thank Pauline McNeill for securing tonight’s debate, which allows us to send the message, loud and clear, that parliamentarians who represent constituencies and regions across Scotland will not accept the tactics that Asda is employing.
The imposition of contracts on the 12,000 workers, a number of whom are in the public gallery, is disgraceful. As many members have said, Asda’s tactics have been disgraceful, but we should point out that they have been employed against mainly women workers. We must expose the way that Asda is operating—taking away paid breaks, reducing holiday entitlements and ending night-shift premiums. During all this time, Asda has been holding a gun against people’s heads by keeping to the deadline of 2 November. Those are the actions of cowboys. They take us back to the dark ages. They are not what we expect from a modern, responsible employer in 2019.
That is why there is such anger, not just in the Parliament tonight but throughout communities. At stores in places such as Blantyre, Toryglen, Parkhead and Govan, not just affected staff members but the public are standing against the proposals.
A loyal Asda employee in my area, Cathy Murphy, from Cambuslang, has worked for the company for 44 years and is coming up to retirement. Cathy has done so much for Asda and has been such a positive worker, but she is being threatened with being sacked if she does not accept the changes. What a way to treat a loyal worker! What a disgrace! Asda should be ashamed of itself.
It is time for Asda to take a hard look at itself. It is time for it to reverse its position and come back to the negotiating table, to negotiate responsibly and treat its workers with respect.
I pay tribute to the GMB, as other members have done, for the role that it has played, which shows the importance of trade unions in standing up for workers. We should bear it in mind that rights have been won through tough negotiations over the years, so if we lose rights now we are losing a fight for the people who will come into the Asda workforce in the future. The GMB is to be commended for standing up for workers’ rights.
I have to say that I am really disappointed in Asda. The Blantyre store, for example, goes back 40 years. It has a good reputation locally and is well supported by the community. It has good links to the community and has provided a lot of good employment over the years, but it has dissed its good reputation in trying to force workers to accept disgraceful contract changes. I am really disappointed that Asda has done that.
This is an excellent campaign and we have had an excellent debate. This is what members’ business debates should be all about: bringing to the fore the views and feelings of workers such as the Asda workers who are in the gallery.
However, our efforts will come to fruition only if Asda listens to what we have said, loud and clear: what it is doing is totally unacceptable and it should listen to the workers and ditch the contract changes immediately.
I am a member of the GMB and, over the years, I have been very proud to stand beside GMB members on many campaigns, especially in Dundee, as they tried to save their jobs and protect their terms and conditions.
There are three Asda stores in Dundee. The one at Myrekirk is quite new; it opened six years ago. I went there yesterday to meet Asda officials and challenge them on the despicable and Dickensian way in which they are treating their loyal workforce.
I was told that, across Dundee, 400 Asda workers had been asked to sign up to the new contract and that 360 had done so, leaving 40 still to sign. I got the impression that the Asda management is quite pleased with that result and thinks that the 360 people who have signed up to the new contract think that they are getting a good deal and an attractive contract. The management fails to remember that when the Myrekirk store opened six years ago, there were 8,000 applications for the nearly 300 jobs at the store—according to reports in the local press—many of which were part-time jobs.
Eight thousand applications—that shows how much people need and value their jobs. Asda has convinced itself that 360 people in Dundee wanted to sign up to the new contract, which is absolutely fanciful. People need their jobs, which is why they have been forced into that situation.
One of the defences that Asda offered yesterday was to do with competitiveness. I was told that the new contracts will bring Asda’s practices into line with those of other supermarkets. I asked why other areas of the business, such as the company’s logistics chains, could not be targeted for cost savings rather than its loyal workforce. Today, the GMB told me that Asda was not interested in the industry standards across supermarkets when it came to last year’s pensions negotiations. When GMB members made the case for better pensions at Asda, the Asda officials did not admit that other supermarkets’ pension deals were much better. Industry standards seem to be cited when it suits Asda but not when it does not.
A point that has not been made in this evening’s debate but which I found sickening relates to the stories that I heard about Asda withholding sick pay from workers who were on notice to sign up to the new contract. When I raised that issue with Asda officials yesterday, they told me categorically that that was not happening, but I have been told by the union, and I believe it, that some workers had their sick pay withheld and GMB members were able to appeal that and get it back. However, it is quite possible that those people who are not union members and who did not know about that appeal are still having sick pay withheld. That is a despicable aspect of this whole situation.
I do not want to get too political about this, but I believe that Asda workers are bearing the brunt of a race to the bottom. In addition, the present political culture that we have across the UK is such that Asda knows full well that the Tory Government at Westminster will not bat an eyelid when Asda tries to impose such new contracts on its workers. The changes are Dickensian—workers are being asked to sign away their terms and conditions or be sacked.
Today, I have written to Asda officials to ask them to drop the threat of sacking on Saturday night from 40 workers across Dundee who have not signed the new contract, and I really hope that they drop that threat.
I thank Pauline McNeill for securing the debate, and I agree with James Kelly, who said that the debating of such subjects was exactly what members’ business debates should be used for. In debating such matters, we turn our rhetoric, which is so often heard in the chamber, into the reality of individuals who are very worried at the moment and we put a face on things.
Such issues are hugely important, because no organisation or business can achieve anything without long-term loyal workers. An organisation is only as good and as strong as its employees. The profits that Asda has made over the past few years have been mentioned; those profits have been earned by the individuals who work for Asda day in, day out, and they deserve our support and our thanks. They certainly deserve respect. I welcome those of them who are in the gallery this evening.
The debate is important, too, because it allows members to defend—with passion—their constituents. I note the number of members who have supported the motion.
It is important to state at the outset that the Scottish Government has a clear vision for employment, which is one of fair work. We believe that fair work improves people’s lives and strengthens businesses so that everybody can share the benefits of a stronger, growing and more inclusive economy. We recognise that, in growing a more inclusive economy, an appropriate balance must be struck between workers’ needs and organisational demands. It is clear from listening to members that the debate illustrates that we need to work closely with employers and workers where we can show that fair work practices drive the productivity and the growth that are critical to the success of Scotland’s economy.
I note the work that the GMB has done over the past few weeks in particular in seeking concessions and changes to the contracts. That demonstrates the point that Ross Greer made about the importance of the unions and their being protected by law. Trade unions are key social partners in delivering our economic and social aspirations. We vehemently opposed the UK Government Trade Union Bill and will continue to call for the repealing of the Trade Union Act 2016, which presents a direct threat to the fundamental rights of workers and to Scotland’s collaborative approach to industrial relations.
I will list some of the changes that have been made because of the GMB’s work. The GMB asked for a commitment to a further pay increase. Asda gave that commitment, but it has only today announced the rate: the basic hourly rate will increase to £9.18 in April 2020. However, fair work is not just about pay; we can see that quite clearly in these negotiations.
Alongside the pay increase, the GMB talks about the concessions that it has been able to get on non-festive bank holidays, for example. The maximum number of non-festive bank holidays that colleagues will have to work next year has moved from five to three, and the Scottish bank holiday of 2 January will continue to be classed as a bank holiday in Scotland. The minimum notification on flexibility, which was originally proposed to be three weeks, is now four weeks, and those who lose out will have 18 months of transitional payments, which is an increase.
However, there are still quite clearly concerns about elements of that. In particular, as others have talked about, the introduction of the 4-week flexibility clause is an area of concern. As I said, fair work is not just about pay; it is about far more than that. The issue is not just about allowing time for workers to make alternative arrangements. Should workers have caring responsibilities, alternatives might not be available or might come at a cost, which means that somebody then has to question and reconsider their role.
As a Government, we would not support any measures that have the potential to indirectly discriminate against a particular staff group. Asda says that it will always consider personal circumstances before asking any employee to change their department or working pattern. We expect it to uphold that commitment and to note concerns about those changes to flexibility. Asda has also made a commitment not to reduce employees’ working hours through the flexibility clause. Again, we would expect it to hold true to that. However, expectations are not enough; there needs to be that element of security in a contract as well.
Others have mentioned—it would be remiss of me not to mention this area, which falls into the portfolio of the minister for both fair work and business—that it is a tough time for employers in such a competitive climate and, in business terms, there are growing competitive pressures within the retail sector. The retail sector currently employs 225,000 people in Scotland, accounting for 9 per cent of all jobs. In the light of that, it is all the more important to ensure that employees are treated with dignity and respect and have the security that they need.
Fulton MacGregor and Anas Sarwar have both said that Asda does a lot of good work supporting worthy causes and charities, and it has received 190 motions of congratulation. However, again, all that good work is only as good as the sense of security and—for want of a better word; I do not mean to be trite in saying this—happiness among employees as they go to work. At the end of the day, Asda, like any other organisation, is only ever going to be as strong as its employees are.
I whole-heartedly agree with the First Minister’s approach, which she outlined at the Scottish Trades Union Congress conference: we need to have a race to the top based on innovation, productivity, skills and quality of work. That is why we work with unions on skills issues and why we are establishing the new manufacturing institute and the Scottish national investment bank.
We have to use all the levers that we have at our disposal to embed fair work in all Scottish workplaces.
I know that there is not a lot of time left, but I want to reduce the issue to one point. Although changes to all companies are necessary—we understand that, as do the workforces—do we really want to live in a Scotland in which the way to negotiate with the workforce is to hold a gun to their head and say that they must accept something? I hope that, as a Government minister, the member will put it on the record that we do not want to live in a Scotland where employers think that that is the way to negotiate.
I agree with that sentiment, as I hope I have made crystal clear in my contribution. The debate is important, because it provides accountability and transparency in relation to the issues that we are discussing. I firmly believe in the notion of inclusivity when it comes to growth, as difficult as that is to define. There is no value in widening the gulf of inequality, which is already far too wide in this country. There is a responsibility on the Government, but there is also a responsibility on major employers to ensure that they support their workforces, not just when it comes to the top level of pay but at all levels of pay and in relation to terms and conditions.