(2 years, 5 months ago)Westminster Hall
[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered trade union access to workplaces.
Working people in the UK can thank our trade unions for fighting to give us the minimum wage, parental rights, holidays and sickness pay. With nearly 6.5 million members in the UK, trade unions are our largest voluntary and democratic organisations. Trade unions are on the frontline every day, fighting poverty, inequality and injustice, and negotiating a better deal for working people. This role has never been more critical than it is today, with in-work poverty on the rise and zero-hours contracts widespread, but a barrage of anti-trade union legislation over the past decade has meant that workers have found their ability to organise and take industrial action to challenge these injustices greatly restricted.
Under existing legislation, huge multinational companies such as Amazon and McDonald’s can employ legions of low-paid, insecure staff, often in terrible working conditions, all while turning record-breaking profits. It is boom time for large multinational companies, but their success is not passed down to employees. With British workers facing an uncertain and exploitative job market, trade unions are the perfect tool to make these workplaces fairer.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that it is a real pity that some big employers do not see the benefit of having an organised workforce, which facilitates better industrial relations, improves dialogue between employers and employees, and is better for staff morale and for keeping staff turnover low?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I will come to later in my speech. If employers look after their employees and they are happy, then they are more productive; in the end, everybody wins. That was a great point.
It is no exaggeration to say that working conditions at large multinational companies are, at times, reminiscent of the deplorable practices of the 19th century. Workers have recounted having to urinate in bottles for fear of being disciplined for a toilet break and heavily pregnant women report being refused permission to sit down for a break during 12-hour shifts. How can we allow this to happen in the UK in the 21st century? I have spoken to countless trade union officials who tell me that, despite the widespread desire for improved rights and conditions at work, efforts to unionise staff in such workplaces are often fruitless.
In large part, that is because there are currently no rights of access for trade unions to enter the workplace and speak to workers for the purposes of recruitment. Workers at Amazon have had their shift patterns interrupted and randomised simply to prevent them from talking to union officials on the way into work. Union representatives visiting branches of McDonald’s across the UK to speak to workers about the benefits of joining a trade union are routinely thrown out of stores, with their presence reported to senior regional managers.
When I raised these issues in Parliament several weeks ago, both Amazon and McDonald’s responded by denying that these practices were taking place in their stores. McDonald’s stated:
“We strongly dispute the notion that we are asking people to leave our restaurants based on their membership of a union. If anybody comes into a restaurant with the sole intention of disrupting our people while they work, or customers while they eat, we would ask them to leave regardless of their reason for causing disruption.”
Does that attitude not sum up the problem with the current legislation? The crucial work of our trade unions is simply a nuisance to these companies and is getting in the way of their exploitative practices and profiteering. The current laws simply let them get away with it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that our highly restrictive trade union laws and low collective bargaining coverage have helped to make the UK one of the most unequal countries in Europe and the OECD in terms of income inequality, and that guaranteeing trade union access to all workplaces would be a moderate and practical step in addressing these issues?
Absolutely; that is an excellent point. I could not agree more.
Union members from the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union have recounted stories like that of Mohamed’s, a worker from north London, who was excited at the prospect of working alongside his colleagues to improve basic things at work, like getting his shifts 10 days in advance so that he could plan his life. Because of those efforts, he was informed by the management that he was banned from every McDonald’s store in the area. I note that in its statement McDonald’s did not dispute that account.
In its response, Amazon stated:
“If you want a true assessment of our working conditions just register for a tour at one of our fulfilment centres.”
A registered, company-sanctioned tour—effectively a corporate PR exercise—would hardly paint an accurate picture of working conditions at Amazon. Let the figures speak for themselves: from 2015 to 2018, a shocking 600 ambulance calls were made to Amazon warehouses. I have visited an Amazon warehouse in my own constituency in the past; the technology on show was indeed very impressive, but that hardly gives an accurate account of what it would be like to work a 12-hour shift in the warehouse. Nevertheless, I am happy to take Amazon up on its offer of another visit. Would I be able to bring representatives from the GMB union with me? Until now, many of them have consistently been denied access to the workplace.
It is not just Amazon and McDonald’s; these practices are widespread, particularly in poorly paid jobs. In its recently published report on InterContinental Hotels Group, Unite the union documented a workplace culture of fear and bullying, with management pressurising low-paid staff into working for eight to 10 days straight. IHG employees and subcontracted employees have been routinely denied the right to freedom of association and have stood little chance of exercising their right to collective bargaining.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for calling this debate. While making the case about large employers, will he acknowledge that there is a lot of exploitation of workers by small employers, particularly bullying and harassment, and that they also shut their doors to trade unions? That is to the detriment of small employers, as well as to the detriment of their staff.
I thank my hon. Friend for that brilliant point. It works for all stages in every sector, regardless of the size of the business. If large organisations practise fairly, it will filter down, especially through subcontractors. It is the responsibility of large businesses to show smaller businesses what they are doing. If they follow the right practices, that will filter down to subcontractors. Perhaps larger businesses could have some kind of contract to make sure that their subcontractors look after their employees in the same way as they do. Large businesses have to set a precedent.
Union members are vulnerable and live in fear of reprisals from their employer. Bupa is one of the largest and highest-profile providers of residential social care in the UK and part of an international health group that serves approximately 32 million customers in 190 countries. It consistently refuses to allow Unison officials access to workplaces to speak with staff and members regarding union rights and representation.
During 2017 and 2018, Unison North West regional officers were banned from every Bupa care workplace, despite assurances that visits could be conducted at the employer’s convenience and with due regard to operational and safeguarding concerns and priorities. I have just mentioned what McDonald’s said about disruption, but unions do not want to disrupt the business at all. They give adequate time before they come, and that is all I am asking for in the legislation. Of course I am pro-business and I support great businesses, but not at the cost of poor workplace conditions for employees.
I am sure I do not need to remind the Minister that the UK is a signatory to the European convention on human rights, article 11 of which states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”
Does he not agree that the examples I have listed constitute a flagrant violation of that right? If so, what does his Department intend to do about it?
I do not want to use this debate simply as an opportunity to criticise existing practices, but to propose a way forward. I hope the Minister will listen to my proposals, because it does not have to be like this. By expanding trade union access to workplaces, we can restore dignity and respect at work and put an end to the exploitation and misery we see on the rise today. As I said, I am pro-business and I want to see our businesses flourish, but that should not come at the cost of dignity and respect at work. An alternative is possible.
We can look to places such as New Zealand for inspiration, as well as for evidence that the legislation that I am proposing works. Under the Employment Relations Amendment Act 2018, trade unions there have far greater access to workplaces. Workers in New Zealand can speak to union representatives in their place of work, which has led to higher union membership, higher wages, and fairer and more just workplaces.
Under this legislation, all that is required is that the union provide a short period of notice that it will be visiting the workplace, allowing for management to add the extra staff member needed for the duration of the visit. The situation is beneficial for all involved: disruption to the business is kept to an absolute minimum, while workers’ legal and human right to join and form a union is properly adhered to.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. Does he agree that that access is even more important when individual workers are undergoing disciplinary or grievance procedures, and that we need to see a full right to representation for workers in those procedures? At the moment the employers have an unequal force of arms, but resolving these issues could make workplaces better for all employees.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was a union rep at my workplace before I joined Parliament, and the number of cases in which I represented my colleagues is unbelievable. There are a number of things that union reps can achieve, working with the employer and of course the workers, and that is crucial.
With the success of New Zealand in mind, I want to see similar legislation adopted in this country. Last month, I presented a private Member’s Bill to that effect, which seeks to remove a number of restrictions on trade unions’ conducting business in workplaces. I have received a lot of support for the Bill from hon. Members, over 50 of whom were willing to co-sign it. However, to date I have not been supported by a single Conservative or Liberal Democrat MP.
Arguments against increasing the collective bargaining power of working people have long been discredited. It is a myth that strong trade unions drive down profit. If strong trade unions drive down productivity, why has the UK long suffered from a productivity gap despite having the most restrictive trade union laws in western Europe? In truth, a happy, well-respected workforce is also a productive one, but the stories I have heard from union officials paint the opposite picture: too many people in this country feel exploited and dispensable at work.
If we are to transition away from a low-wage, precarious economy, increasing the collective bargaining power of our workers is critical. That is why I am fighting to improve trade union access to the workplace. We need strong trade unions and a better deal for working people.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) on securing this debate and on talking eloquently about this important issue. I am proud to be a co-sponsor of his private Member’s Bill that he talked about.
As we know, the right to join a trade union is a basic democratic right. Trade unions play an invaluable role in ensuring that justice is served, defending their members’ workplace rights, pay, and terms and conditions. As I have said many times in this place and will always say, the best thing anyone can do to protect themselves at work is to join a trade union. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my membership of GMB and Unite.
As my hon. Friend said in his excellent speech, the European convention on human rights provides that everyone has the right to form or to join a trade union for the protection of his or her interests. Given that, we might think there would be no need to introduce his Bill to remove restrictions on trade unions conducting business in workplaces in the UK, but sadly both the law and the culture in this country place little emphasis on workplace protection and do little to support or respect it.
Far too many people experience insecurity, uncertainty and exploitation at work. As we have heard, in-work poverty is on the rise and zero-hours contracts are widespread. Anti-trade union legislation introduced by the Government has actively sought to clamp down on trade unions and to diminish the voice of ordinary working people. In my opinion, that is based on a ridiculous and outdated view of trade unions and their role in society.
As we heard, there are 6.5 million trade union members in the UK. Every hon. Member present today will have constituents who are members of trade unions. They are ordinary men and women who want to organise themselves collectively to strive for better working conditions, and who can argue with that as an aim? We should be supporting them in their efforts to improve working conditions, not attempting to thwart them. As my hon. Friend said, a happy workplace is a productive workplace; it is good for employers and good for the economy.
We should therefore be saddened to hear that research by the TUC has found that one in three workers do not feel comfortable approaching managers about a problem with work, that more than one third do not feel that they or their colleagues are treated fairly and that nearly half say that their line managers do not explain their rights at work. Trade unions were founded exactly for those reasons, to fight for the rights of every worker.
Union representatives in the workplace can inform workers of their rights, help to ensure those rights are enforced and provide workers with a collective voice in negotiations with employers. They provide the safety net we all need. That is why it is vital that trade unions should have a legal right of access to workplaces in the UK.
Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the fundamental problems now, with so many workers working for small and medium-sized companies, is the lack of a place to meet? Often, workers just need to discuss some of the issues, but they have no opportunity to do that, and that makes it difficult for them to join a trade union. Does he agree that that is something we could look at seriously?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I think there is more we can do to meet in the electronic sense, online; there can be more discussion forums that way. The old workplace messes are a thing of the past, but we can improve things in that way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South spoke about various examples around the country where employers have prevented unions such as the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, Unison, GMB and the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers from accessing workplaces. We have heard about some of the largest employers in the country, including McDonald’s, Amazon and Bupa, actively seeking to prevent trade union activity through restricting access, banning visits or manipulating shift patterns to prevent opportunities for engagement. That is a shameless way to behave and is ultimately self-defeating.
In my area, trade union recognition in the construction industry has been a particularly hot issue recently. We have a lot of industrial construction, but for some reason some of those involved refuse to engage with trade unions on recognition issues, to their detriment. National agreements are important for pay, training and safety—all things we want to see in the construction industry.
My hon. Friend mentions the construction industry. I have a constituent who found that she is blacklisted not only from a particular company but from the whole sector and is therefore unable to get employment in the field she is an expert in, all because of her trade union activity. Does he agree that that has to be wiped out? We cannot have people unable to get work because of trade union activity.
I absolutely agree. We have had a number of debates on blacklisting, particularly in construction, but it applies in other areas. Whistleblowers often find that, once they have blown the whistle, they are unable to gain employment. It is a disgraceful activity that needs outlawing.
My hon. Friend was just coming on to health and safety. Our area has a lot of heavy industry manufacturing. Does he agree that all the evidence demonstrates that where there is an active trade union branch, there is a much better safety culture than where trade unions are not welcome or, in some cases, prevented from organising?
Yes. We have a lot of potentially dangerous industries in our area. The ones I tend to deal with have been around for a long time. They all have long-standing recognition agreements with trade unions, and excellent safety records as a result. It is a learning process, not an adversarial process, particularly in health and safety.
Some companies ought to take a leaf out of those employers’ books and learn how to treat and to deal with employee representatives in a much more reasonable and engaging way. A number of employers behave despicably, adding to employees’ fears about victimisation, which leaves many individuals not wanting their employers to know that they belong to a trade union. How sad is that? How damning is it that some companies are so vindictive to their staff that their employees will not tell them that they belong to a trade union?
Only last week I met a constituent who told me what it was like in his workplace, where unions are not welcome, where arbitrary decisions are made about who is retained and who is let go, and where all the workers are too worried to put their head above the parapet. I hope to discuss my concerns with the company in due course, but does it really need a Member of Parliament to remind an employer of how to treat its staff? If a trade union official was allowed access to the site, they would be able to do that, and in the end everybody would benefit—the workers and the company. At the moment they are locked out, which is simply not good enough. It is shocking that these kinds of things still take place in the 21st century.
What is the point of someone having the right to join a trade union if they cannot exercise that right because an employer refuses to engage? What is the point of their being a trade union member if they cannot be represented? I have lost count of the number of times companies have lied to employees about their right to be accompanied by trade union reps at disciplinary or grievance hearings by saying that, because the company does not recognise a particular trade union, those unions do not have the right to attend the hearings. The Government should clamp down on that.
We have a culture of weak employment rights, greedy corporations and a Government that obstruct trade unions. We need to get away from that and towards a period of renewal and rebuilding of one of the pillars of a decent society: job security. Without job security, people have no security. How can they plan for their future, for a home or for their family if the labour market is so cut-throat, so insecure and so parasitic that they are always just one step away from disaster? The stabilising force of trade unions is a vital component of a decent society.
“Rights” is not a dirty word. Rights are not only about individual dignity and respect in the workplace; they give people a stake in society, when they know that if they do a good job and their employer runs the business well, they will be rewarded. We need an economy —and a country—where everyone has a stake in its prosperity, but to do that we must have a system that values the security and sustainability of a job itself as much as the principle of job creation. Good employers want to work with unions, and in an ideal world all employers would be able to do so without the need for the legislation that we have talked about.
My hon. Friend mentions insecure employment. Does he agree that while those on short-term or rolling contracts are among the least organised of the workforce in the United Kingdom, they actually need to be members of a trade union probably more than any other group of workers?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have seen an explosion of insecure employment in this country in recent years. We wonder why people are so fed up with the way this country is run. People have no security and do not know what they are doing from one day to the next. Let us not forget that until someone has two years of continuous employment somewhere, they have no employment rights whatsoever. What kind of country is that? We do not really want to live in a place where people have no protection until they have been somewhere for two years. Their whole life could change in that period. We absolutely need more support at an earlier stage for people who live in these precarious times.
This is not only about improving workplace rights, but about sending a message to employers that we need to move to a much more stable system, and we need the Government to bring forward legislation to encourage that. A good example is New Zealand’s Employment Relations Amendment Act, which has already had a positive impact on the workforce, restoring protections and strengthening the rights of workers without causing disruption to business. Just as importantly, it has changed people’s attitudes towards their right to represent themselves. I think the people of this country deserve the same. It is a shame that there are absolutely zero Members on the Tory Back Benches. That tells us absolutely everything that we need to know about the priority that the Conservative party places on this issue. In these circumstances, the idea that it could rebrand itself as the party of the worker is a joke.
In conclusion, it is only through improved access to workplaces that unions will be able to inform individuals of their rights and, critically, ensure that those rights are enforced—people’s rights are only as good as their ability to enforce them. Only then will we see real changes and improvements to people’s working lives. It is my belief that it is the duty of the Government to be an enabler in that process, not an accomplice to those who would deny people those basic rights.
It is a great pleasure to follow the previous speakers in this important debate. Having worked for the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—USDAW, 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 the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (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.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree, at this moment, when we are trying to deal with cultures of bullying or sexual harassment, that it is very important that when people take complaints forward, they have somebody with them to give them confidence and comfort in what can be a stressful and sometimes distressing situation?
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.
Thank you, Ms McDonagh, for allowing me to speak in this very important and timely debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) on securing it and on speaking so passionately in his introductory remarks. He raised issues that resonate very strongly with me and, indeed, with the wider trade union movement across this country.
It is good to start on a positive note: trade union membership in the United Kingdom has gone up in the past year by 103,000. Now 6.35 million people are members of a trade union in the United Kingdom. However, the long-term trends still give cause for concern. Trade union membership is half of its peak in the late 1970s, when there were 12 million members of trade unions. Over that time, we have seen a 5% fall in the labour share of our economy—the share of our gross national wealth taken home by workers in wages has fallen. There is a strong correlation between the trade union organisation and collective bargaining power in our economy and the amount of wealth that workers are able to secure from the fruits of their labour.
We need to return that fundamental analysis to the heart of how we understand our economy and the relationship between working people and the owners of capital. It has been forgotten from the mainstream narrative in this country, which is about shirkers, people not working hard enough and how people need to be more flexible and sacrifice more, rather than about unity, organisation and agitation against exploitation and in favour of workers’ right to receive the fruits of their labour. The correlation is stark; it is a fact of economic history. The long-term trend in the past 40 years is a diminishing share of wealth for workers.
It would not be half as bad if that share, which workers once took home in their pay packets, was invested by companies and private capital to improve the efficiency of our economy. However, it has not been invested at all. Investment as a share of GDP has flatlined throughout that period. I wonder where that share of capital has gone? The workers are producing wealth and productivity continues to go up, but the share taken home in wages is declining. What happens to that share? It is extracted in profits by companies, which are often not based in the United Kingdom. The wealth is taken overseas, often to opaque tax havens around the world, or invested elsewhere. It is never seen by the people who produce the wealth.
That is the stark reality that we face. That is why, I would argue, having a Labour Government is so critical to restoring the collective bargaining powers in our economy, which are so essential to recapturing the share of the wealth that working people rightly deserve and produce in this country. Workers put in great innovation, productivity and effort every day in many workplaces across the United Kingdom. However, we have seen the hollowing out of their collective capacity to fight for their share of the wealth they produce.
We have seen an increase in trade union membership. Of the total UK workforce, about 23% of workers are in trade unions. However, there are regional disparities in the way trade union organisation works across the United Kingdom. Trade union membership in London and the south-east is 16% to 17% of workers, yet in Scotland, the north-west, north-east and Wales it is between 28% and 30%. There is significant regional variation. There are a number of reasons for that.
First, in areas with traditional manufacturing and labour-intensive employment, where there are large industrial employers, there seems to be more cultural recognition of trade union membership—it is an accepted fact of life. Secondly, in some regions the public sector forms a much more important share of the economy. In public sector workplaces, 52% of the workforce are trade union members, whereas in the private sector, membership is at a mere 13%. That is a huge contrast, which has evolved and become more stark in the past 40 years.
There is a significant age disparity in trade union membership, which reflects the increased casualisation of work. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South mentioned McDonald’s employees being exploited. Many in the retail and food sectors see that happen on a daily basis. Just 4% of 16 to 24-year-olds are members of trade unions, and 77% of trade union members are over 35. The age disparity is significant and we need to tackle it.
We need to introduce information about trade unions into our education system. When I first entered work, I was exploited by employers. I undertook unpaid trial shifts. I worked minimum-wage jobs. I was denied tips. I started in a pizzeria and then worked in a supermarket. When I started working in fruit and veg at Morrisons supermarket, we had a presentation from the USDAW official. At that time, I did not really understand what a trade union was or why it would be significant to me. Why should I give up the precious little money I was paid to a trade union when I could take it home and spend it on going out and having a good time with my pals? Believe it or not, I did have a good time. Education is required on why trade union representation is important, particularly for young people for whom exploitation has never been more critical.
I am pleased to hear that my hon. Friend had a positive experience of the USDAW official. Unfortunately, I have met too many people, young and old, who started their first job in fruit and veg in a supermarket and injured their back, often for life, because of incorrect lifting practices, and who did not have trade union representation in the workplace to support them and ensure they were lifting correctly. That happens to too many young people. I hope it did not happen to my hon. Friend.
Believe it or not, that did not happen. I managed to survive my experience in fruit and veg largely unscathed. My hon. Friend makes an important point. People never know when they will need a trade union until they do. It is critical that people join, because it is like an insurance policy. We need to educate people in that necessity.
My first adult job was in a shipyard. It was a traditional engineering and manufacturing company—a large-scale employer—where there was significant trade union density. At that point, I joined the Unite and GMB trade unions, because they were the shipyard trade unions. They ably represent the workforce on the Clyde and are often mentioned in this place. I ran into trouble from time to time in the shipyard and my trade union was critical in helping me get through those difficult periods. If I had a dispute with my bosses or another issue, the officials were very helpful. I did not know when I would need them—when a bit of bad luck could strike. It is critical that people understand why trade union membership is so important.
My hon. Friend is giving a detailed analysis and a great speech. Does he agree that there is less trade union membership in the third sector? It is often seen to be the nice sector, but it employs a lot of young people and women, and we need to encourage more trade union membership within it.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. She makes a good point about the gender disparity. It is interesting to note that female membership of trade unions has increased in the past year, but male membership has decreased. That does not read across the different sectors that she mentioned. It is important to recognise that issue, particularly when we look at casualisation in the workforce, which is a key driver of why workers are taking home less in their pay packets than they ought to.
Traditional collective bargaining in large-scale organisations and traditional large industrial workplaces are fragmenting, and the way people work is continually atomising. We need to adapt our trade union regulation and organisation to reflect the changing nature of our economy. The charity sector has not been penetrated by the trade union movement to the same extent. We need to tackle that. Great thought must be given to how to increase recruitment to trade unions in those non-traditional workplaces.
I will offer another view as to why trade union membership is so critical. In the past few months, I have been dealing with a major industrial dispute in my constituency. The Caley railway works, which has been around for 160 years, faces closure. From 1948 to 1995 it was part of British Rail, but it was privatised and sold off. It has been through myriad different owners, culminating in an overseas company purchasing it in an asset-stripping exercise. There are 200 people on that site, which faces closure. Thankfully, they have high trade union density—90%, which is fantastic—because the railway works was a traditional workplace. The trade union was able to swing into action immediately when the closure was announced.
In stark contrast, when the immediate closure of Jamie’s Italian was announced, the workforce were completely blindsided and had no capacity to organise and effectively agitate against that exploitation. People were told to go home with no recourse, redundancy payment or share in the liquidation of the company. With the potential closure of the Caley railway works, the trade union was able to organise to bid up the terms and conditions of severance for the workforce. The liabilities of the workforce were originally assessed as being about £700,000 to close the site. The trade union has now managed to negotiate almost £4 million from the employer to wind up the site. That is an amazing achievement, and the company has even offered to try to sell it or pay the Government to take the site off its hands, because the owners just want rid of it. That is just one example of how effective negotiation by trade unions can massively improve the hand of workers who face really difficult disputes with their employers.
I pay tribute to the tenacity of the Caley railway works workforce, who are facing the most testing conditions and were told just before Christmas—as is often the case—that they would lose their livelihoods. People have been working there for generations. Families have grown up and lived around the railway works their whole lives, to the point that in some cases people felt there was no other way out but to take their lives. The stress that the workforce have had to deal with has been absolutely appalling. I pay tribute to their tenacious work, particularly by Pat McIlvogue of Unite the union, in organising the workforce and keeping their spirits high at a really tough time. I hope the Government in Edinburgh will step in and take action to save those jobs and the workforce, because they deserve it. They deserve to have that commitment shown to them by the state.
The Government and trade unions can work in co-operation to ensure that we salvage the collective knowledge and skills of our workforce and redeploy them in the future, rather than see the industrial vandalism that has so often happened across this country, where we have seen industrial capability destroyed. With the lack of a trade union to organise, agitate and struggle against it, there has not been the fight that could have been mounted. I pay tribute to everyone in the trade union movement who has fought so hard for workers’ rights to capture a better share of workers’ efforts—in the form of labour—in wages, and to secure their rights and those of future generations who will follow in their footsteps, so that we have a prosperous society that gets a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) on securing this debate and on bringing forward his ten-minute rule Bill, which I support—he has my guarantee.
It is traditional in these trade union debates to make our declarations. I declare my 20 years of trade union activity before I was elected to this place, my membership of Glasgow City Unison, and my position as chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group. I will in the next few days declare a settlement agreement with my former employer as a result of an equal pay claim.
I make those declarations not just to show my trade union credentials; it is obviously important to mention the trade union role in the education and personal development of workers. I have no shame in saying—I am sure I am not the only Member of Parliament present who would say this—that I would not be here without the skills, knowledge and experience I gained as a trade union representative and activist.
The hon. Member for Warrington South described the historical and present contexts. On the current context, it is very interesting that the governing party is having a leadership election—a so-called grand national, although I think the grand national is for thoroughbreds, not necessarily for people putting themselves forward for leader of the Conservative party. Many who are seeking to be the next Prime Minister have the inclination to deregulate markets—an inclination not too dissimilar from that of Donald Trump. It seems that some will argue over the next few years that the solution to a deregulated market is to deregulate it even further. It is complete and utter political nonsense.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the contenders for leadership of the Conservative party. The Foreign Secretary presides over a Department that is in dispute with PCS over Interserve. The Department has essentially hived off core staff into an arm’s length company that fails even to recognise the trade union that is mentioned in employees’ contracts. Is that not shameful? The Foreign Office should act immediately to resolve the situation.
I agree wholeheartedly, but on this occasion the hon. Gentleman underdoes his criticism of the Foreign Office. It gave a contract to a company that will be the next Carillion, because it is in administration. It is absolutely and utterly ludicrous that the Government are giving contracts to companies that are failing.
Members including the hon. Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley) have mentioned the historical context and blacklisting. We know that it has been going on in the construction sector. The difference between that sector and other sectors of the economy is that people in the construction sector found the blacklist, but I know there are blacklists in other sectors. Given my trade union activity over the past 20 years, I would be very surprised if I were not on a blacklist.
We have seen the erosion of trade union rights over the past few decades. There is the anti-trade union Bill, which I will touch on; the erosion of facility time in the public sector; the publishing of that facility time, and the suggestion that it is a cost to the public purse when it is not; a public sector pay cap; and the erosion of collective bargaining. In Scotland, 81% of workers were covered by collective bargaining agreements for pay in 1979. The figure is now 23% as a result of the deregulation of markets.
The examples provided by the hon. Member for Warrington South are very alarming. As far as the Scottish National party is concerned, all workers should have the right to trade union membership and to organise as a collective trade union. Multinational companies purposefully stopping trade unions from recruiting staff is against employer best practice, and does not bode well for the prospect of positive workplace relations. These incidents can make workers feel isolated and alienated, further frustrating cohesion in the working environment.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the benefits of a trade union workforce have been consistently documented by research—not just by the TUC, but by others—that suggests members are more likely to be paid more, more likely not to be dismissed, more likely to have better leave provisions and more likely to work fewer hours of unpaid overtime. Those are important gains. Members are also more likely to find themselves in a pay and grading scheme that complies with the Equal Pay Act 1970, and trade unions have played a vital role in ensuring that employers comply with that very important piece of legislation. As the chief economist of the Bank of England has said, the weakening of trade union power in the United Kingdom has hit workers’ pay over the past few decades.
Trade unionism should be viewed as an opportunity to improve workplace relations, as trade union representatives and officials bring a vital perspective to a workplace, and do more than play a role in collective bargaining; for example, they ensure effective communication between employers and workers. Indeed, trade unions provide workers who go on to become trade union representatives with the opportunity for personal development through lifelong learning. They ensure a common footing on communication between employees and employers.
I want to highlight the great work being done by organisations such as Better Than Zero, which is highlighting some awful employment practices, particularly on zero-hour contracts and the status of workers—the bogus self-employment that is increasing in the economy. Since I support the ten-minute rule Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Warrington South, I hope that he will support mine, the Workers (Definition and Rights) Bill, because it is important that we deal with zero-hours contracts. Under my Bill, such contracts would be allowed in only one circumstance: where there is a collective agreement with an organised trade union. That would nail once and for all the view espoused by some people that workers like zero-hours contracts. Having trade unions in workplaces where there are zero-hours contracts would put that to the test.
My Bill would simplify the status of workers, because there is far too much bogus self-employment—people are finding out that they are self-employed when they thought that they were employees. It would also provide another opportunity to expose the anti-trade union Act that was passed in the last Parliament and has significantly reduced the mobilisation and organising power of trade unions. The Act has in particular impacted on facility time, which is integral to a trade union’s ability to prepare for collective bargaining. That law pits the Government and employers against trade unions and is needlessly divisive. Publishing details of facility time and its so-called cost to the public purse is frankly outrageous. The fact is that trade union reps save both time and money by improving workplace relations and enforcing best practice.
I support the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, and I hope he supports mine. It is a pleasure once again to support the trade union movement—the best partner with our society.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (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”
“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.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) on securing today’s important debate, and commend the impassioned speeches by the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for High Peak (Ruth George), for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), and for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock).
I am very pleased to engage in this debate. Before I address the individual points made by hon. Members, I want to put it on record that the Government recognise the important role that trade unions play across the United Kingdom, and I personally recognise the important role that they play. In my role as a constituency MP, I have worked closely with trade union representatives at Rolls-Royce, which has a site at Barnoldswick in my constituency, and since my appointment as Business and Industry Minister, I have met trade union representatives at BAE Systems here in Parliament and trade union representatives at British Steel on a visit to Scunthorpe.
I am glad that the Minister mentioned all of those organisations, but there is another organisation that he should mention, which is the Council of Europe, of which we are a member. The Council of Europe has always taken a very strong line on this issue. For example, it runs facilitation courses to help people to understand the role of trade unions and how they can participate in them. That is something that we should be proud of.
I thank my hon. Friend for his point. He is not just a powerful advocate in the Council of Europe, but a powerful advocate in this place for the role it plays in helping to make positive change, not only in this country but across Europe.
Trade unions have played a long and positive role in our society; they have long represented their members and lobbied for wider changes in society. They have campaigned on equality issues for women and other groups, helped to tackle child poverty and fought against modern day slavery. They have shown how we can bring about change that benefits everybody in society.
Over the decades, unions have improved the working lives of their members, and this Government hope to see that continue. Throughout the country, trade union health and safety representatives have made our workplaces safer, which not only benefits workers but contributes to our economy, by reducing accidents.
Unions have also invested in people, working to develop the skills of their members. Unionlearn is an excellent example of that. It has helped to engage with more than 50 trade unions in more than 700 workplaces. Unionlearn has helped those with low literacy and numeracy and also helped to recruit and support thousands of apprentices. That is why the Government continue to support initiatives such as Unionlearn with over £8 million over the previous and coming years.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, as a fellow north-west MP, I am a passionate advocate of the positive role that unions can play. I have stepped into this debate today because the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), who is the Minister with responsibility for small business, consumers and corporate responsibility, has to take an urgent question in the main Chamber. This is her policy remit, but I will certainly speak to her to see what we can do to ensure that we lobby for things such as Unionlearn in the spending review. I am passionate about trade unions. In 2015, I helped to re-establish the Conservative workers and trade union movement in my own party, so Members have a friend of the trade union movement stood before them today.
Let me turn to the points made in the debate. I think it would be helpful if I set out the legislative position. Workers in the UK have a right to join a trade union. That right is protected under our trade union law. It is automatically unfair for an employer to dismiss an employee on the grounds of trade union membership or for being active in a trade union, and employers cannot subject their workers to detriment in attempting to deter union membership or participation in trade union activities.
All union members have the right to participate in union activities, which includes members who are union officials. They have the right, for example, to organise union meetings and consult their members. Furthermore, the right to be active in the affairs of a trade union is enhanced where the union is an independent union that is recognised by the employer for collective bargaining purposes. Officials of such unions may seek time off work with pay to discharge certain union duties. Members who are union learning representatives may also seek paid time off in order to carry out their functions. Individual workers can enforce these rights at an employment tribunal.
I want to emphasise that the debate is about what happens before people become members of a union. The Minister is explaining exactly what members’ rights are, but we are not talking about those rights, we are talking about what happens before employees become union members.
I appreciate that point, and I hope I will get to address it slightly later in my remarks. I was trying to emphasise that those rights, as they exist, amount to the right for a union, through its individual members and officials, to recruit and organise in a workplace.
It is important that I address the argument about the UK’s general commitment to human rights. In particular, I wish to refute the argument that the right, under article 11 of the European convention on human rights, for workers to join a trade union and to organise is effectively being denied. That could not be further from the truth. The UK has a long-standing commitment to uphold human rights. The Government are satisfied that our trade union legislation complies with our international obligations, including article 11 of the European convention.
As I have set out previously, workers are free to join a trade union and to participate in trade union activities. That is protected by law. Unions are also free to organise and seek collective bargaining arrangements with employers. Where an employer refuses to recognise a trade union voluntarily, our legislation provides for a statutory recognition procedure. That allows independent unions to apply to the Central Arbitration Committee to be formally recognised for collective bargaining purposes. Unions that can demonstrate majority support for recognition in the workplace will secure statutory recognition from the committee.
The Minister defines the legal position. Does he believe, therefore, that the Government could do more to enforce that legislation, to ensure that the many alarming examples that the hon. Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) gave us are not repeated anywhere in the United Kingdom?
I do not wish to comment on any of the individual cases that have been raised by Members today, but it is always important to keep these things under review, to look at the evidence and to see where legislation can be changed if there is a need for that, to reflect what is happening in the labour markets.
Returning to the Central Arbitration Committee, the UK courts have found that the statutory recognition procedure complies with article 11. Furthermore, the European Court of Human Rights has accepted the Government’s view that the UK’s trade union legislation strikes the right balance between the rights of trade unions and their members, and the legitimate interests of others. The UK’s system is based on the democratic wishes of workers in the workplace. If workers in the UK want to organise and be represented by a trade union, they have the means to do so.
I think the Minister will find that in practice individual workers do not have the ability to organise themselves and to join trade unions, as all the evidence presented by Opposition Members has shown. Employers frequently victimise trade union members and do not allow trade unions into the workplace to support their members, even when they are needed.
I take the hon. Lady’s point. As a constituency MP, I have come across companies whose practices I would not approve of, and I have taken the matter up with managers and been able to secure better access for trade union officials. The hon. Lady will know that workers have the right to bring a union representative to a disciplinary or grievance hearing. Unions have the right to accompany workers in such cases, even if the union is not recognised. It is fundamental that we allow unions access and that we remind workers all the time that they have that right.
On that point, the member might have the right to be accompanied but the trade union representative does not have the right to speak in the meeting, so their presence is pointless. Does the Minister not agree that that makes the regulation fairly useless?
No, I would never describe trade union representatives as pointless. It is important that they are able to attend and support workers in grievance or disciplinary meetings. They do not have to be able to speak to support someone.
On giving practical effect to article 11 rights, let me turn to a matter that a number of hon. Members have raised: facility time for union representatives to carry out union activities. I agree that without facility time union representatives cannot carry out their trade union duties in relation to collective bargaining and related matters, and our trade union legislation provides for that. Where an independent union has been recognised by an employer for collective bargaining purposes, the employer is required to provide facility time to the union’s representatives and its members. Union representatives are entitled to paid time off to carry out their union duties as well as paid time off for training. That allows them to negotiate with the employer and carry out their functions in relation to matters covered by the collective bargaining agreement.
I have to make some progress.
Union members are also entitled to unpaid time off during working hours to participate in union activities, for example to attend union meetings or vote in internal union elections.
In relation to access to facilities, the ACAS code of practice on time off for trade union duties and activities states that employers should, where practical, make available to union representatives the facilities necessary for them to perform their duties efficiently and to communicate with their members. The provisions of the code are admissible in evidence in proceedings before an employment tribunal relating to time off for trade union duties and activities. Provisions of the code that appear to the tribunal to be relevant should be taken into account. The Government therefore believe that the current arrangements in relation to facility time are sufficient. The arrangements have been in place for a long time, and are well understood by both employers and trade unions.
I thank the Minister for his generosity. Why, therefore, is it necessary for the Government to publish the so-called cost to the public purse of facility time for civil service trade unions? It seems to me that there is no cost and that the benefits of providing facility time outweigh the so-called cost.
I will raise that matter with the Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility, and I am sure she will be more than happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with an answer.
In his speech on 15 May introducing his Bill, and again today, the hon. Member for Warrington South referred to strengthening collective bargaining in the workplace. In the UK, collective bargaining remains an important method whereby pay and other terms and conditions are set. The UK takes a voluntary approach to collective issues. Collective bargaining is largely a matter for individual employers, their employees and their trade unions. Most collective bargaining in this country takes place because employers have voluntarily agreed to recognise a trade union and bargain with it. The Government do not believe that they should be in the business of forcing employers or their workers to enter into collective bargaining arrangements if they do not wish to do so. Instead, we prefer a voluntary and democratic approach. However, where an employer refuses to recognise a trade union voluntarily, our legislation provides for a statutory recognition procedure.
In 2018-19, the Central Arbitration Committee received 56 trade union recognition applications. Of those, six were able to reach agreement without the need for a ballot, including that reached between the employer Babcock Mission Critical Services Onshore and Prospect. A total of 25 applications were withdrawn and, encouragingly, 13 of these were because the employers and unions were able to reach agreement voluntarily. The key point I wish to reiterate is that if a majority of workers in a workplace want to organise and be represented by a trade union, they have the right to secure trade union recognition for collective bargaining purposes.
The Government recognise the important role that trade unions play in the UK economy and society and, personally, I hope that that continues for many years to come. Individual workers have the right to join a union and take part in union activities. Unions, through their individual members and officials, effectively have the right to recruit and organise in the workplace. Unions are also free to seek collective bargaining agreements with employers. If necessary, they can obtain statutory trade union recognition as long as they can demonstrate majority support for union recognition in the workplace. Our legislation therefore does not need amending. It is well established, and has been backed by successive Governments. If workers and unions want collective bargaining in workplaces across the UK, they are free to organise to achieve that.
I thank all my hon. Friends who have taken part in the debate. Every one of them has made excellent and eloquent points. In the few seconds I have left, I wish to respond to the Minister. I am very disappointed, because 80% to 90% of his response was about what union members can do rather than about trade unions’ access to the workplace. I totally appreciate that he is substituting on his colleague’s behalf; however, I reiterate that he should go back and do some real thinking about what we on this side of the House are, with some common sense, proposing.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).