John’s Speech on Protecting Workers’ Rights

Thank you very much, Presiding Officer.

Last Friday, I had the great pleasure of addressing the Public and Commercial Services Union annual general meeting in Glasgow. They were a fine bunch of people. There was an extra pleasure in being asked to present an award to Louise MacBean, who works for Bòrd na Gàidhlig at Great Glen house in Inverness. She was given an award, as a young trade unionist, for the level of recruitment that she had achieved—a percentage of Great Glen house staff in the 70s. I had the good fortune at the end of that meeting to have a talk with Louise—a wee bit in Gaelic and a wee bit in English—and it transpired that the figure was wrong: she has actually recruited up to 90 per cent of the staff at Great Glen house.

To pick up on the points that Gordon MacDonald made, the significance of what Louise MacBean has done is in the collaborative workforce that it will bring about, which will bring about good relations. People being engaged in trade unionism does not suggest fractious workplaces, but quite the reverse; problems can be solved.

A number of members mentioned National Museums Scotland staff. They are PCS members, and PCS has been representing them very ably. I hope that there is a resolution to that situation, and I urge the Scottish Government to redouble its efforts in intervening.

People have also mentioned the porters in Dundee. I am inherently suspicious of any employer that is unwilling to engage with ACAS: employees are not allowed access to a tribunal without having exhausted all internal mechanisms.

It is important that we are in no way complacent. Our basis for discussing and welcoming trade union rights is the foundation that was set out by my colleague Alison Johnstone. She spoke about the relationship between various human rights, which should be the basis of our approach to everything in our policy making.

I support the Scottish Government motion; I support the devolution of powers, and not just employment powers, but a wide range of powers. Why? It is because I think that we can do things better.

I like the wording of the motion; I like the word “protection”. What is that protection? It is the protection of hard-fought-for rights. A lot of people—many brave individuals—put a great deal of effort into winning those rights. I also like the word “promotion”. Not many people seem to be keen to promote workers’ rights, but that is a very positive word to associate with this subject. I hope that the devolution of employment rights does not just bring about protection; I want enhancement of those rights. There is an opportunity to improve workers’ terms and conditions, so the on-going debates on that are important.

The minimum threshold for strikes has been covered by many members already—as, of course, is the case for a number of issues at this stage of the debate. There seems to be some rank hypocrisy on the part of the UK Prime Minister—there is nothing new about that, of course. I am drawn to the words of Grahame Smith, who is the general secretary of the STUC, who says that the proposals would

“effectively ban the right to take industrial action in the UK”.

What a retrograde step that would be. He goes on to describe “some of the weakest legal protections in the developed world” for workers. That is a damning indictment of where we have got to.

I ask whose interests are served by the proposals. It is certainly not those of the people of Scotland, nor is it those of workers in general.

I believe that trade unions and staff associations play a positive role in the workplace in a preventative way, rather than as a cure. Good working relationships are good for business and for productivity. Matters reach employment tribunals because there has been a failure to operate systems. The role of ACAS is very important.

The word “disincentive” has been used in relation to the changes that have taken place to employment tribunals. Who in their right mind is going to spend a sum of money—a fee—in an attempt to recoup half that sum of money in holiday pay, for instance? It is ridiculous.

If we had been debating a different subject, and I had seen that there had been an 85 per cent drop in sex discrimination cases, a 50 per cent drop in race-related cases and a 47 per cent drop in disability-related cases, that would be a cause for rejoicing but, as has been said, the reduction is because people are having to weigh up whether their moral and legal position is worth the expenditure. Clearly, it is in the interests of people who use bad work practices that those fees continue.

The term “access to justice” is frequently bandied about in the chamber, not just in this debate, but in relation to many other matters. It is clear that workers are not gaining access to justice as a result of the changes.

Citizens advice bureaux have been mentioned. Their staff are the people who will pick up many of these issues, as we all do.

Alex Johnstone mentioned EU-wide benefits. The UK Government is supportive of TTIP. My colleague Alison Johnstone referred to that. That will be a race to the bottom, not simply for workers’ rights, but also in terms of environmental rights and free trade. That seems to be the rationale that is used to lend support to that agreement. As I say, it will be a race to the bottom, as we have seen from experiences elsewhere. We watch that situation with alarm.

The motto “Unity is strength” is often used by trade unions. Of course, there is also unity among the multinational corporations and those who subscribe to the neo-liberal agenda. Stewart Stevenson touched on that when he spoke about a human rights approach involving carers, who are a very important part of our community.

The Westminster Prime Minister has referred to “the health and safety monster”,which he wants to slay. The tactic of ridicule and misrepresentation is terribly important.

A number of members talked about workplace deaths. The 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster was commemorated in many ways: the most shameful way in which it was commemorated was through the change to the offshore regime that was made by the UK Government. That was a green light for dangerous workplace activities. Of course, those activities impact not only on the workforce, but on the wider community. Opportunities for the Health and Safety Executive to be proactive have been removed, so I am sure that devolution of those powers would help greatly, because of differing priorities. Politics is about priorities, and we would make ensuring that our workers and workplaces are safe one of our priorities.

I commend colleagues who have talked about blacklisting. It is a pernicious practice that exists throughout the United Kingdom. The issue of the umbrella companies is a sad indictment.

On corporate manslaughter, people have talked about the Government’s bill and Patricia Ferguson’s member’s bill that deals with industrial accidents, both of which are getting a lot of scrutiny at the moment.

It is important that we in Scotland are not complacent about the workplace. There are issues of underrepresentation according to gender, race and disability in relation to modern apprenticeships.

I welcome the memorandum of understanding between the Scottish Government and the STUC, although I wonder whether biannual meetings are sufficient. A rights-based approach must be taken. The fair work convention will go some way towards delivering that.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak.