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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:31 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Laura Pidcock Laura Pidcock Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Labour) 5:31 pm, 4th June 2019

I congratulate my hon. Friend Faisal Rashid on securing this debate, on introducing his ten-minute rule Bill, and on bringing trade union issues to the House of Commons. With some exceptions, it is only Labour Members who press these issues continuously and bring the worker’s voice into this space.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on an important issue for workers everywhere. I declare my interest as a member of Unite the union. We know from information provided by a number of unions, including the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, GMB, Unite and Unison, that union officials are routinely denied access to workers by many employers. There are examples of trade union officials being locked out of workplaces, prevented from speaking to workers or forced to meet members in car parks—some horrifying stories have been outlined by comrades in this room today.

What is this debate really about? In my mind, it is simply about trade unions and workers exercising their fundamental right to meet, discuss and organise on issues that workers face. That right is being systematically denied in this country; for most workers, it does not exist and has not existed for some time because of the serious restrictions placed on unions, because of employers’ anti-union practices and because of the fear that is whipped up in workplaces and that often prevents workers from having the confidence to exercise their rights.

Here are just a few examples, from across the UK, of what happens when workers take part in union activity, want to meet their trade unions or talk to fellow workers. As has been mentioned, a young worker from Watford was enthused by winning positive change in his workplace through the union, but was then banned from going into any McDonald’s in the area. He was told that he was not allowed to talk to other workers. Managers are being trained to notice the signs and language of a union and report them to senior management. Managers are telling workers that they can be sacked for joining a trade union. Portuguese workers in McDonald’s in Cambridge were told that they could be sent to jail for taking strike action.

Tim Martin, chair and founder of Wetherspoon, has refused even to speak to the general secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, which has many members in Wetherspoon. What kind of disregard is that? The general secretary of PCS had to address his civil servant members in a blizzard in a car park in January. What kind of respect did that show to all his members, or to him as general secretary? Union organisers are routinely banned from workplaces.

If we want to open workplaces up, the law needs to be changed so that workers can realise their rights. The Labour party has been clear that to improve dramatically the rates of pay—and therefore wages and terms and conditions—of workers, a system of collective bargaining needs to be restored. If the balance of power in the workplace is to be redressed, workers need to be able to negotiate; that is a fundamental principle. I am sure that every Conservative Member has read “For the Many, Not the Few”, the Labour party’s 2017 manifesto, which many Opposition Members were elected on. It promised that a Labour Government would

“roll out sectoral collective bargaining…Guarantee trade unions a right to access workplaces—so that unions can speak to members and potential members.”

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights established 11 years ago that the right to bargain collectively is a fundamental human right that is protected by the European convention on human rights, yet the latest statistics show that the percentage of workers in the UK covered by collective bargaining has fallen from 82% in 1979 to 26% today, and the figure is even lower in the private sector. Of course it has been political ideology that has forced that percentage downwards, yet the International Labour Organisation, the OECD and even the International Monetary Fund have shown that extensive collective bargaining is essential to a successful economy, as colleagues have outlined so eloquently today. Crucially, it is also essential to reducing inequality.

Trade union access to members and workers is essential for the restoration of collective bargaining. With that in mind—this has been mentioned, but I will say it again—many trade unionists have looked with envy at legislation in New Zealand, where union representatives have a right to access workplaces to

“discuss union business with union members…seek to recruit employees as union members” and

“provide information…to any employee on the premises.”

The Minister might want to take note of those very simple asks. Does he agree that workers who are not trade union members should have a fundamental right of access to information that allows them to consider membership?

The New Zealand legislation also allows union representatives to bargain with the employer for a collective agreement; deal with health and safety issues for members; check that the employer is complying with the collective agreement and with employment law; help individuals to implement employment agreements; and ask the employer to comply with any relevant requirements if non-compliance has been detected. So many of those things are crucial to helping workers to access their basic rights, yet there is no comparable right of access in this country. It is true that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has a code of practice that gives unions access to the workplace during recognition ballots, but Labour must, and will, build on that to provide a general right of access to the workplace for trade union officials for the lawful purposes of the union.

Under Labour’s plans, trade unions will, on giving reasonable notice to the employer, have a right of access to a workplace for the purposes of organising, meeting and representing workers on any matter relating to their employment. The employer will be under a duty to provide an opportunity for meetings to be held on the premises, in conditions that are reasonable and appropriate and that respect the confidentiality of the workers and the union.

I stress two points. First, “access” must mean both physical access and access by email, where email is provided or controlled by the employer. In both cases, access should be free from employer surveillance, and the fear of intimidation should not prevent workers from speaking to a union. Secondly, we have to deal with employers who refuse to provide access despite the law; access delayed is access denied, as the saying goes. We may need to look again to New Zealand, where denial of access can lead to financial penalties on the employer. We will look at all ways of ensuring that the denial of trade union access rights and of other trade union rights is dealt with effectively and appropriately by enforcement.

Any effective right of access introduced by a Labour Government along those lines will go a long way towards helping to restore the balance of power in the workplace. It will enable trade unions to speak to workers about the benefits of trade union recognition and expand the coverage of collective bargaining, and it will enable trade unions to speak for workers, ensure that they are effectively represented and address the abuses that we know are taking place. Colleagues have talked about workers being scared to go to the toilet, or having to go to the toilet in really degrading circumstances, and about heavily pregnant women not being given a seat. It is clearly men, who have never been heavily pregnant, who have designed those rules. The Government just refuse to address those abuses through serious legislation. They think, “Just leave it to the free market. Leave it to the employers to do whatever they want to do.”

I am mindful that rights of access can only be the very beginning of a programme to restore trade union presence in the workplace; it is only the start of giving workers a voice, and of ensuring that high standards and a good quality of work are a reality for everyone. We need to look again at trade union recognition legislation to remove obstacles that make it difficult for trade unions to secure recognition for collective bargaining. We also need to look again at legislation for dealing with trade union facilities, so that trade union representatives in the workplace have the time, space, resources and powers to carry out their duties. We also need to look at legislation dealing with the right of workers to be accompanied by a trade union representative, to ensure that all workers have the right to full trade union representation at work.

We are under no illusions; trade union access to the workplace is just one of several crucial steps in strengthening workers’ rights. It is, however, an essential step in our plan to roll out sectoral collective bargaining. The reintroduction of that bargaining, so that sector by sector, workers can negotiate on and determine pay, terms and conditions, hinges on workplaces being opened up. This is critical.

I finish with a political point, because this is a political Chamber, is it not? So often we look at the technical details of all these issues, but what do they actually mean for workers? Throughout our history, has there not been constant tension between workers and the state, with the state often removing the rights that workers have fought for, or ignoring and resisting the rights that workers demand? Trade unions’ access to the workplace goes to the very heart of how our society is set up, the cultural norms established, and who they benefit. Often, those cultural norms are not established by working-class people.

In the current climate, workers are scared to talk about the issues that affect them. Our culture makes them petrified of losing their job; it says that that should be their No. 1 fear, and it should dictate how they act and what they say in the workplace. The system and the norms that we live by support this climate of fear, so that the worker defers to the employer all the time, worried that they could be replaced at any time. As was mentioned, the system is rigged against workers, to enable those who own the capital or the business to extract as much value as possible from the worker for the smallest reward—and, it seems, with the least comfort for workers.

The consequence of all this is that power is concentrated in very few hands, which is really unhealthy. It means that entire workforces are stressed, tired, underpaid, undervalued and—let us be honest—deeply dissatisfied with life, with little to look forward to.

In the Labour and trade union movement, we have a totally different way of viewing the world of work. We believe that it is workers who create the wealth, and that they deserve the right to negotiate freely their rate of pay; and that it is a fundamental right of workers to assemble, associate with one another, organise and bargain with the employer with one voice. It is therefore common sense that trade unions should have access to the workplace; it is their space, and it is their right to meet the people they represent, or wish to represent. That should not be a difficult concept to grasp. If policies were won on the strength of argument alone, the Labour side would clearly have won this argument, and not just because nobody from the Government side has spoken. Our argument is not that weak; it is a powerful and common-sense one, even though Government Members did not turn up today. To my mind, those on the other side of this argument do grasp the simplicity of enacting those rights, but I think they are deeply scared of and worried about its transformative potential for working-class people.