It’s rather fitting that as the issue of Workers’ Rights are debated in the House of Commons, that Scotland is also celebrating the life of our national bard, Robert Burns. It’s appropriate given the Bard’s radical instincts and his call for Workers representatives and women to be elected to Parliament; a call made long before trade unionists, and women entered the green benches.
Regardless of one’s own view of Brexit, it was always a suspicion that the Farage’s, Patel’s, Johnson’s and other hard right-wing figures always saw it as a vehicle to eradicate employment and workers’ rights.
Indeed, many of them said so. Despite the countless occasions in which Ministers promised that these rights would remain, it is hardly a surprise now that the transition period has ended that the Tories see their opportunity to attack hard won rights at work.
It should come as no surprise that the political party who brought into law the Master and Servants Act 1823, a law that codified the acceptable implements firstly to be used to discipline workers and codify penal conditions, should set about a bonfire of EU regulations.
We already know their intentions with respect to the working week. Media reports have suggested that the first to go would be the Working Time Directive, allowing employers to enforce a working week longer than 48 hours.
In this world of privileged theory, the Tories view the worker as lazy and idle. Of course, the truth is that this action could put the health and safety of workers at risk. Already the HSE has correctly received criticism for not enforcing the closure of one employer during COVID.
NEW: Downing Street plans major overhaul of workers rights rules, starting with abolition of the EU 48 hr week rule.
— Matthew Garrahan (@MattGarrahan) January 14, 2021
So, what else do they plan? Or, as Business Secretary Kwarteng put it “We wanted to look at the whole range of issues relating to our EU membership and examine what we wanted to keep…”
We can be confident that if the Tories were intent on protecting workers’ rights, they would simply maintain those already enshrined in EU law – rather than ploughing ahead with a review and selecting what they want to keep. This could have been done in a day’s business.
They could have simply picked up Melanie Onn’s Private Members Bill, which produced a complete list of EU regulation and directives.
However, the Tories have reverted to type in spin and communication, having been caught out by the leak, they initially dismiss the report, only to announce a review, which by coincidence proves the original leak was correct all along.
This so-called review is not a mere trimming, it is designed to rip up the many EU directives and regulations that protect workers today. It is just another example of not being able to trust anything the Tories say, they have shown they will break any promise and sell out any group of workers no matter the cost.
This is not some academic debate about EU membership’s merits, nor the fallacy that UK rights have always been better. The directives under consideration are hard won and used by Trade Unions to enforce better pay, terms, and conditions.
Scottish independence is “the only way” to protect workers’ rights from a “devastating Brexit assault”, according to the SNP’s shadow business secretary.https://t.co/PKzRrGEZcH
— STV News (@STVNews) January 15, 2021
Thinking of my own time in Trade Union activity, the Fixed Terms Workers Directive ensured that those on long term temporary contracts could enforce their rights to receive a permanent contract.
The Equal Treatment Directives enhanced the Equal Pay Act to secure Equal Pay claims – the Glasgow Equal Pay saga being a case in point -resulting in millions being paid out to low paid women.
The part-time Worker Directives have secured rights and leave for part-time workers and ensured that they receive the same rights as full-time co-workers.
Similarly, the Agency Workers directives ensured that they receive no less favourable treatment.
The no less favourable treatment aspects to these laws are essential as they cover the ground the Tories are admitting to examining. Note the wording of the leak to the Financial Times in which a “spokesperson” says the Government are considering “ending the 48-hour working week, tweaking the rules around rest breaks at work and not including overtime pay when calculating some holiday pay entitlements” as well as to “remove the requirement of businesses to log the detailed, daily reporting of working hours, saving an estimated £1bn”.
The directives cover these topics. They cover rest periods and rest breaks and pay rates, including access to sick pay and holiday pay.
This is not tweaking as the spin suggests but a fundamental shift in rights at work. This is the biggest fight the Trade Unions and MPs have fought for decades.
🚨 On the Tories’ watch, workers’ rights are under assault from ‘fire and rehire’ tactics.
📢 @GavNewlandsSNP: “If the Prime Minister is genuine about protecting workers then he must step up and commit to backing the Bill to ban fire and rehire tactics without further delay.” pic.twitter.com/PbTVChmlLm
— The SNP (@theSNP) January 13, 2021
But the fightback has begun. The STUC and the Scottish Government have issued a joint statement and call opposing the downgrading of employment protections enshrined into UK law.
My colleague Gavin Newlands MP has laid down his Employment (Dismissal and Re-Employment) Bill against Fire and Rehire’s scourge practices, a device used extensively by multinational profit-making companies. This bill has received the support of over 100 MPs who wrote to Alok Sharma demanding this practice comes to an end.
The SNP will join others in sending a clear message that any regression in workers protections is unacceptable and will fight to enhance rights.
This is a battle that must be won, the health and safety of workers’ demands nothing less.
As we celebrate the writings of Burns, the Tories’ attitudes to Employment protections can be summed up in many of his works but can perhaps be best described in The Ode to the Toothache.