Trade Union Access to Workplaces — [Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:57 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Ruth George Ruth George Labour, High Peak 4:57 pm, 4th June 2019

It is a great pleasure to follow the previous speakers in this important debate. Having worked for the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied WorkersUSDAW, the shop workers’ union—for 18 years before coming to this place, I have seen an enormous amount of good practice in a trade union. I am sad to say that, since being elected as a Member of Parliament, I have seen the opposite side of the coin. Constituents come to me with employment cases, some of them really serious, and my first question is always whether they are a member of a trade union. I am really sorry to say that the vast majority are not; if they were, they would not end up in these situations with their employers.

Only 14% of workers in the private sector are in trade unions, so it is a very rare breed who have the benefit of trade union protection at work. While working with USDAW and the retail sector over many years, I often heard from skilled and experienced reps; they had been trained and had done training courses on employment rights, and were far better at negotiating under their companies’ grievance and disciplinary procedures than the managers, who were often straight out of business school, or were moved around shops in different areas and so were never able to build up the expertise that the reps had.

Employers are missing a trick by not seeing trade union representatives as an asset to their workplaces and workforces. Having helped to put together presentations for employers on the value of a trade union in the workplace, I know that a trade union can absolutely bring value for money and productivity to a company. A union can also ensure that a company is doing everything by the book, and can certify that at national level; at local level, the presence of a trade union rep can give people confidence in the management in the company—confidence that things are being done right.

My hon. Friend Justin Madders mentioned health and safety. I am honoured to have the laboratory for the Health and Safety Executive in my constituency. It is really useful to be able to talk to people there about how best to implement health and safety at work, particularly given the decline in the resources that the Government give to the Health and Safety Executive. We have seen inspections decline—they are now done on a risk-assessed basis—but where a workplace has trade union representatives who are trained in health and safety, those health and safety reps do risk assessments and take soundings from their work colleagues, who often feel more able to raise problems with their trade union representatives than with their management, particularly if they are concerned about their safety. That is even more the case where there are people in the workplace with a disability or some other form of impairment. It is so important that they feel that they have that support.

We have some basic rights at work, but in the UK they are particularly basic, and we often see that even those are not provided. We have a system of employment tribunals whereby individuals have to put their head above the parapet, as has been mentioned; they have to show that they are able to make a complaint in order to access an employment tribunal. That does not help the rest of the workforce, who are probably suffering in exactly the same conditions, particularly where the issue has to do with the minimum wage, holiday pay, sick pay, parental leave or flexible working. Those are basic rights at work that we expect to be in place, but too often they are not, and individual employees have to put themselves forward in order to be able to access a particular right. Many feel that it is not worth it; many feel that it is better to move on to a different place of work. That does not help the other people there.

To access the protection from unfair dismissal, a person now has to have been in a workplace for two years. We have an increasingly mobile workforce, so a growing number of people are not able to access the right to claim unfair dismissal, and do not feel that they can access any of the other rights that enable them to take a case to their employer or to a tribunal, especially where they cannot get the support of a trade union representative in that. That is why, as I have said, it is so important that trade union representatives are able to come in and support individual members in a workplace. Even where the union is not the recognised trade union, the trade union reps need to be able to support their members, who are paying for the privilege of membership. If they are paying for that service, it is not right that their employer should be able to deny it to them.