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House of Commons Hansard
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Trade Union (Access to Workplaces)
15 May 2019
Volume 660

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to remove certain restrictions on trade unions conducting business in workplaces; and for connected purposes.

Article 11 of the European convention on human rights 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”,

or her interests. At present, there are almost 6.5 million trade union members in the UK, making trade unions this country’s 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. Their role has never been more critical than it is today, as in-work poverty is on the rise and zero-hours contracts are widespread. British workers face an uncertain and exploitative job market, while it is boom time for large multinational companies.

I have spoken to union officials who have been prohibited by companies like McDonald’s from efforts to unionise their workforce. Employees have been banned from visiting other McDonald’s stores. Union members from the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union have recounted stories like that of Mohamed, 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 can plan his life. Because of these efforts, he was informed by the management that he is banned from every McDonald’s store in the area. Union staff visiting McDonald’s across the UK to speak to workers about the benefits of joining a trade union are being routinely thrown out of stores and having their presence reported to senior regional managers.

Workers at Amazon have reported shift patterns being interrupted and randomised simply to prevent staff from talking to union officials on the way into work. In a members’ survey of workers conducted by the GMB, one Amazon worker described employment there as like “living in a prison”. The strict targets that are imposed on staff mean that 70% feel as though they are given disciplinary points unfairly, while 89% believe that they are being exploited. In its recently published report on InterContinental Hotels Group, Unite documented a 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. Union members are vulnerable and live in fear of reprisals from their employer.

Bupa is one of 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 to staff and members regarding union rights and representation. During 2017 and 2018, Unison North West regional officers were banned from every Bupa work location, despite assurances that visits could be conducted at the employer’s convenience and with due regard to operational and safeguarding concerns and priorities. In a sector where shift work and long hours are prevalent, and where many care workers also have significant caring responsibilities at home, the workplace is often the only place for the union to engage with workers. Bupa’s denial of access in this case is effectively a refusal by the employer to allow workers to organise a union.

I could go on: I have heard countless stories like these from union officials. As long as these practices are widespread, this country’s commitment to the human right to form and to join a trade union is hollow and meaningless. Why are our democratic trade unions being treated in this way, and why is the human right to join and form trade unions being denied? In part, it is because under current legislation there are no rights of workplace access for trade unions. In the words of one IHG union member:

“In order to exercise our basic human right to freedom of association, workers in the UK need our employers to provide facility time and a space within our workplaces for reps and members to meet and discuss work related issues.”

This is not a far-fetched, unrealisable demand—it is achievable, and I hope that my Bill can achieve it.

In New Zealand, under its Employment Relations Amendment Act 2018, unions have far greater access to workplaces. Workers can speak to union reps visiting the sites. The company provides a space for the union and worker to meet and pays the worker for a reasonable amount of time with their union rep. This, in turn, leads to higher union membership, higher wages, and more just and fair workplaces. Trade unions in the workplace are normalised, leading to a less adverse attitude to working people’s right to represent themselves. Under this legislation, all that is required is that the union provides a short period of notice that they will be visiting the site, allowing management to add the extra staff member required for the duration of the visit. This means that there is no disruption to the business while ensuring that workers’ legal and human right to join and form a union is adhered to. New Zealand’s Employment Relations Amendment Act has restored protections for workers, especially vulnerable workers, and strengthened the role of collective bargaining in the workplace.

If we are to transition away from a low-wage, precarious economy, increasing the collective bargaining power of workers is critical. It is a myth that strong trade unions drive down profit—I emphasise that point. A happy, well-respected workforce is also a productive workforce. I know this from my own experience as a union rep at NatWest. Being able to represent and support my colleagues gave me a clear sense of the value of strong union representation in the workplace. My colleagues felt valued and supported, and as a result provided an efficient, professional service. That is what trade unions are all about: bringing people together to work towards a common goal. The stories I have heard from union officials paint the opposite picture: too many British workers feel exploited and dispensable. 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. We need strong trade unions and a better deal for working people.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Faisal Rashid, Laura Pidcock, Ian Lavery, Caroline Lucas, Grahame Morris, Chris Matheson, Ruth Smeeth, Justin Madders, Helen Goodman, Danielle Rowley and Angus Brendan MacNeil present the Bill.

Faisal Rashid accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed (Bill 391).