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

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. People often spend the majority of their waking lives at work, and the relationships in the workplace are some of the most important to them. If they are subject to bullying or harassment, that affects their whole life and their confidence in taking the issue forward, so having a trade union representative, or a trade union office that they know they can phone for expert support and advice—having someone on their side—is so important, particularly when they are taking forward a case against a manager or another colleague with whom they work closely. That creates very difficult situations for individuals.

It is not just individuals who benefit from trade union membership. The state also benefits from higher productivity and from better pay and conditions, which reduce the reliance on in-work benefits that comes from low pay and low hours at work. Universal credit is being rolled out, and the only thing that employers have been told by the Department for Work and Pensions is that they no longer have to give people set hours of work. With tax credits, people used to need to have a contract to work 16, 24 or 30 hours a week, for access at different points. Employers knew that and were prepared to give those contracts to ensure that people could afford to live on the contract of work. Under universal credit, yes, people can access mini jobs, with fewer hours of work, but that will encourage employers to provide more flexibility within contracts; I am afraid that the Department for Work and Pensions is actively encouraging them in that. They may not be zero-hours contracts—those are bad enough—but they are short-hour contracts, sometimes for as little as four or eight hours a week. People simply cannot afford to live on them, but employers are happy to give those sorts of contracts and to ask people to flex up when they are busy. It gives employers maximum flexibility, but it does not mean that people who are in work can get by.

That is why we are seeing such a huge increase in in-work poverty. Up to 8 million workers—more than one quarter of the workforce—are now in poverty. That is a crying shame for any decent economy, any decent society. If someone goes out to work, they should be able to support themselves; if there are two of them, they should be able to support a family. There are rising house prices, housing costs and rents, but there have been reduced real wages for almost a decade, and people simply cannot afford to live on the wages that they get.

The issue is not just pay but pension provision. Employers with trade unions provide far better pension entitlements than employers who do not recognise a trade union. Again, the state benefits, because it does not then have to provide a top-up where pensioners are falling into poverty. Trade unions that I saw in the workplace helped to keep better pension schemes going for their members. We have seen innovative schemes, such as the Communication Workers Union and Royal Mail scheme, that will help far more workers continue to have a decent standard of living when they retire, and will save the state from having to step in where people fall into poverty because they have an inadequate pension scheme.

Trade unions can bring benefits across the whole range of rights at work, pay and conditions, and pensions. That is why it is inexcusable that no Conservative Back-Bench MPs have bothered to turn up to this debate to, at the very least, discuss the value of trade unions in the workplace and have a robust discussion about their merits and what they can bring to working people who particularly need that support.

We certainly need trade unions in the workplace at a time when employers are possibly facing a lack of labour. Workers from the European Union are returning to their own countries, or countries of origin, and many workplaces are desperate to recruit. They are seeing a recruitment shortage, and they need to ensure that they can provide the best standards and conditions of employment. Trade unions will help them to do that. They help them to stamp out cultures of bullying, which unfortunately can exist in the workplace. They ensure that there is always a trusted third party. They ensure that people have a friend at work whom they can turn to—and everybody needs one of those at times. I really hope that the Minister will reflect on those points and respond to them.