Graham Stevenson, national trade union organiser of the Communist Party of Britain asks searching questions of the Labour party’s new ‘manifesto for work’ and demands greater rights and protections for unions in the workplace.
LABOUR’s manifesto for work, A Better Plan for Britain’s Workplaces, contains fine words aplenty: “Britain only succeeds when working people succeed.”
But the headline promise of a minimum wage of “more than £8 before 2020” needs further examination.
The minimum wage is due to be at £6.70 by this October anyway and the incremental rate thereafter merely follows the climb taken since 1999.
Wages need to massively rise and that can only be achieved by changing the bargaining landscape in Britain.
Thankfully, Labour will curb zero-hours contracts so that “if you work regular hours, you get a regular contract.” But the nuts and bolts of the policy have not been made clear.
Outlawing the use of agency workers to undercut wages is a good start but a Labour government can seemingly only end this by “working in Europe.”
There could be benefits to extending the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority — a public body regulating the supply of workers to the agricultural, horticultural and shellfish industries.
And having no “automatic presumption that outsourcing is the right approach in the public sector” is better than nothing. Labour will double paternity leave to four weeks and boost statutory paternity pay by more than £120 a week to £260 a week.
It’s great if primary schools will give “wraparound childcare from 8am to 6pm,” but why not act to reduce hours of work?
Cheers for the 10p starting rate of tax which will benefit 24 million people, procurement rules to encourage firms to pay the living wage, and rules making public limited companies report if they pay it.
But how long will it take for the Low Pay Commission to “bring the minimum wage closer to average earnings” if wages continue to drag?
A guarantee of a paid job for all young people under 25 who are out of work for a year, and for those over 25 for two years, sounds great.
But will there be an obligation to take the job or lose benefits?By far the best guarantee against “arbitrary dismissal, discrimination and victimisation” at work comes from having an organised workforce.
Ensuring “proper access to justice in the workplace” means abolishing tribunal fees, apparently.
Helpful — but the reality is that once a worker has left the workplace, they will rarely get their job back, unless the historic call “one out — all out” is made.
Employers need to know that this is likely before they curb their brutal instincts. It is the full rebalancing of the bargaining framework that is needed.
There’s clearly something wrong when the playing field is so tilted that the union side is always playing at the soggy end of the pitch. But is Labour playing cricket?
A review of health and safety legislation to reduce “the toll of workplace injuries, fatalities and occupational ill-health,” tackling bogus self-employment in construction and setting up an enquiry into blacklisting are all brilliant — as is the release of all papers regarding the Shrewsbury 24 trials.
But it is not clear what will follow these “immediate measures.”A sharp rise in precarious forms of work over recent years leaves most of the new generation drifting in and out of low-paid casual work for years.
Labour accepts this is behind the race to the bottom, in a period which has “seen the biggest fall in wages of any Parliament since the 1870s.”
So how will Labour shift our economy away from a labour market that is flexible for employers but inflexibly useless for workers?
Austerity-lite is the backdrop of a supply-side approach to “reduce the nation’s deficit,” amid the smallest of positive measures.
Productivity can only be raised by “building a culture of partnership”, obliging investors to “prioritise long-term company success over short-term profit” and ensure “employee representation on remuneration committees.”
That will be no challenge to big companies, who will rediscover the age-old tactic of incorporation to tame any oddities.
No-one expected Labour to produce a plan for socialism. This would go against the grain of most of its history.
But all that can be discerned here is a subtle balance between a view of capitalist economics that sees supply as creating its own demand and a notion that stimulating demand may create its own supply.
The devil is in the detail. Where unions are not recognised, “a process for electing worker representatives will be established.” And what “more effective mechanisms for dispute resolution” might be developed?
How will information and consultation regulations be improved? More positively, Labour endorses trade unions “as an essential force for a decent society” and commits to “ensure British compliance with international obligations on labour.” Encouragingly, Labour will “recognise the positive role facility time plays in the public sector.”
How about the private sector?The new insecure jobs market disproportionately affects young people. A guarantee of an apprenticeship for all school-leavers who “get the grades” has some merit but what about the kids who don’t?
It’s a joke that only 63 per cent of apprenticeships are now given to young people and just a 10th of employers bother with them.
There’s much talk of reforming technical education and using procurement to encourage the use of apprenticeships, instead of obliging firms to train as a social obligation and pay for it properly.
Overall, this is a modest approach that may do little harm but will hardly massively change Britain for the better. Yet it is certainly miles away from the hostile blood and thunder of the Tory sabre-rattling.
It’s the best on offer from any party likely to be able to form a government.
What is really needed is the active promotion of unfettered collective bargaining, in particular by obliging ACAS to encourage this on a sectoral level, applying to all workers.
In sectors such as the leisure industry, where migration has had an accumulative and influential effect on pay levels, this would be game-changing.
The statutory recognition procedure needs to be overhauled, giving recognition rights where there is 10 per cent membership amid wider support.