Friday, March 02, 2007

Labour slap in the face for workers' rights

protest outside agency that recruited non-union, casual labour to replace them in airline catering firm

Labour government ministers and party whips have talked out a private members' Bill that aimed to protect agency workers, and give them rights like those of regular full-time and directly employed staff.

The Temporary Agency Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Bill introduced by Paul Farrelly, the Labour MP for Newcastle under Lyme, and backed by trade unions, had its second reading in the House of Commons today. But supporters say government tactics have ensured the Bill cannot progress to the next stage. John McDonnell MP, who is standing as left-wing candidate for the labour leadership said:" The Government 's tactics today have been an open abuse of parliamentary democracy."

Casualisation and the use of agency labour has been a major factor in undermining workers' rights and conditions in Britain, dividing the working class between those who still have regular employment and fringe benefits and a growing number of insecure, low-paid workers, lacking rights such as sick-pay or holidays, competing for work, and afraid to complain about conditions, even safety, in case they are replaced.

Together with the drive for outsourcing as employers - public as well as private - sought cheap labour and cut corners , it has brought deterioration and dangers for the public too, as seen in the dirty hospitals where people have got more ill than when they went in.

Unions said that Paul Farrell's bill, if enacted, it would prevent "unscrupulous" employers and agencies exploiting workers and undercutting the pay and conditions of permanent employees. Backed by Amicus, the Transport and General Workers Union (T&G), GMB, Unison, Communication Workers Union and the TUC, it required the support of 100 MPs if it was to progress beyond its second reading.

In the 2004 Warwick Agreement, one of the promises with which Labour bought the acquiescence of trade union leaders with its war and other policies was a pledge to introduce domestic legislation to protect agency workers should the European Union fail to reach consensus on a Directive. But just like New Labour, other European governments see "flexibility" in the labour market as their way to reduce unemployment queues. Meanwhile reforms which look good on paper can be trumpeted, ignoring the fact that they don't apply to agency staff.

Derek Simpson, General Secretary of Amicus; Tony Woodley, General Secretary of the T&G; and Billy Hayes, General Secretary CWU said:
"The equal treatment of people at work is a fundamental human right and a basic test of a fair society. Apart from the moral imperative, the ability of unscrupulous employers to create a working underclass will prevent the UK economy becoming the dynamic knowledge-based economy we and the Government believe, is our future.

"Under Labour we have made real advancements for workers. But not for all workers - there has been a systematic discrimination against agency workers, many of whom are the most vulnerable in our workplaces. With agency staff now numbering well over one million workers, and set to grow further still, the government cannot continue to place these workers out with the most fundamental employment protections."

The Temporary (Agency) Workers Directive (TAWD) which was supposed to deal with the problem was effectively halted in September 2005 when the EU Enterprise Commissioner announced plans to shelve a number of initiatives in a bid to cut "red tape". Successful Private Members' Bills have included the Christmas Day (Trading) Bill, The Sunday Working (Scotland) Bill and the Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill. However, the Recruitment Employment Confederation (REC) claims greater regulation is not the answer, and that temporary workers in the UK are already covered by most basic employment rights. Naturally, it too wants "flexibility", and warned that unemployment would rise if agency work was restricted.

"The Private Member's Bills we were due to debate have both been endorsed by the TUC and Labour Party Conferences and had huge support on the backbenches," said Labour leadership contender John McDonnel in a statement tonight. "Deliberately preventing MPs from even having the opportunity to properly debate bills that extend the rights of working people in this country is an absolute disgrace and brings the whole of Parliament into disrepute. "

"Labour supporters will be astonished to learn that the Government has done everything in its power to talk out not Paul Farrelly's excellent bill seeking to give some protection to agency workers but also the Trade Union Rights and Freedoms Bill, which I was introducing to restore to working people the rights stolen by Thatcher."

Actually, the days have long gone when trade unionists and people who would have considered themselves Labour supporters are "astonished" by anything this government does. Disgusted and angry, yes. And while John McDonnell's excellent campaign may have temporary reduced the hemorrhaging of members from the Labour Party, it won't stop trades unionists asking ourselves what we are giving votes and money to the Labour Party for. Even if the question of an alternative has been put on hold while we give the Left a chance to sort the leadership out.

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At 9:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said Charlie - there's a good report and bit of analysis at:


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