Tag Archives: rights

A fairer vision for the UK: the challenge for the labour movement

29 Jan
by Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC
 

The year has started with an economic outlook as bleak as the weather. We’re stuck in the middle of what at best looks like becoming a lost decade. Jobs are being slashed across the public sector – including in services like health that we were told would be protected. And while we should be pleased unemployment hasn’t been as bad as feared, it’s still far too high, especially for young people.

The hidden problem of under-employment is growing too. Many people in part-time jobs want to work full-time, and many more workers aren’t able to use their skills and education to the full.

To make matters worse, living standards are stagnating as wages fail to keep pace with prices. Family budgets are under real pressure, particularly when you look at the soaring cost of what those on middle and low incomes actually spend their salaries on – food, childcare and transport.

The government is failing to offer a vision for the economy that works for ordinary families. Even before the recession, living standards were stagnating for the majority and the resulting unsustainable growth of credit-fuelled consumption was a key cause of the crash. There has been a long-term decline in quality, skilled, and well-paid jobs that should make up the back-bone of the labour force, as the short-term interests of banking and finance have continued to dominate the economy over the last few decades.

The labour movement has a huge challenge to make the case for a better vision, and this is going to shape my campaigning priorities over the coming months.

First we need the government to change course and abandon the austerity that is doing more harm than good. That means stopping these self-defeating spending cuts, instead putting investment in jobs and growth first.

Second we need a long-term vision of how we can build an economy that works for the many. That means leadership from the very top to drive a new industrial policy, including investment in the country’s skills and infrastructure, including affordable homes and transport. The changes we’ll need to make to respond to the challenge of climate change could be a key part of this. Banking reform needs to be stepped up too, and an effective industrial bank is needed to help us invest for the long-term.

And third, we need to build a fairer society – one where we really are all in it together. It’s no coincidence that the economic model that we’ve followed since the 1980s has led to a huge increase in the gap between the super-rich and the rest of us. Recession has only made this worse. We need to do a lot more to tackle the root causes of growing inequality.

This is why I want to see a major push for many more people to be paid the living wage in the year ahead, and a clampdown on the tax evasion and excessive tax avoidance endemic amongst corporations and the richest in society. We also need to begin a public debate about economic democracy, making the case that a fair society is also one where people have a real say in the decisions that affect their working lives and their families’ security.

Short-termism driven by runaway greed proved to be unsustainable and we can no longer entrust the best long-term interests of a company to shareholders alone. Giving workers a say over top pay through employee representation on company remuneration committees is one example. But it’s also about making all workplaces more like the best performing ones and genuinely giving staff a voice in the strategic decisions on which the future success of a company depend.

Stronger unions too must be a vital part of creating a better Britain, helping to tilt the balance of power back towards ordinary people.

I believe that when we look back at the period of deregulation and inequality from the 1980s to the crash, historians will see these as exceptional times – as damaging in their way as the 1930s. What will dismay them most is how slowly we are building a new economic model to replace the one that fell with Lehman Brothers.

This all adds up to a very different approach to the economy and it poses a challenge to all the political parties, employers and indeed unions. There is surprisingly broad consensus that we need real change. What we need now is the determination to deliver it.

 

Frances O'Grady

 

Frances O’Grady is the first female General Secretary of the TUC, which represents around 6.5 million trade union members.

Don’t let the Prime Minister repatriate workers’ rights

28 Jan

Speaking later today at a conference in Madrid, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady will appeal for the help of unions across Europe in persuading their governments to resist David Cameron’s attempt to ‘repatriate’ workers’ rights.

The new head of the TUC will say that if the Prime Minister gets his way over Europe, British workers, who already face the harshest anti-trade union laws in Europe, will lose out. The General Secretary’s words come after Nick Clegg expressed reservations about Cameron’s plans for the EU,  warning his coalition partner that a promise to hold a referendum on EU membership risked damaging the already weak economy. Clegg, in further signs of coalition unrest, dismissed prospects of securing a significant renegotiation around the EU and suggested Cameron should concentrate on the economy – which risks slumping into a triple-dip recession.

Speaking at the ETUC event, Frances O’Grady will say: “Last week, the British Prime Minister made a speech which you may have heard about. To some people outside the UK, the logic of his argument may not have been entirely clear.

“Like the last Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, David Cameron has a problem – not so much with Europe as with his own party. He has now promised – if re-elected in 2015 – to hold a referendum on British membership of the EU, which he says he wants to win.
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“What David Cameron is doing – if putting internal party management above the national and European interest wasn’t bad enough – is even more sinister.

“As well bringing the prospect of an unprecedented triple-dip recession even closer, the UK government is making the most vulnerable pay for a crisis they didn’t cause, and is set on a wholesale scrapping of workers’ rights.

“The government has already made it easier for employers to sack people they don’t like and more difficult for workers to get justice before the courts. Now it is trying to abolish wage protection for farm workers, and stop people injured at work getting their rightful compensation.

“But there’s one set of workers’ rights David Cameron can’t touch. Those are the rights provided for by social Europe – paid holidays, health and safety, equal treatment for part-time workers and women, protection when a business is sold off, and a voice at work.

“The Prime Minister wants to ‘repatriate’ those rights, and not because he thinks he can improve them! David Cameron wants to make it easier for bad employers to undercut good ones, drive down wages, and make people who already work some of the longest hours in Europe work even longer. To do that, he needs agreement from the rest of Europe. And when the UK government calls on your government to give him the chance to undermine British workers’ rights, we want your governments to say no. Not just out of solidarity with us, but in the interests of your own rights, your own wages, and your own jobs.

“British working people are looking to their colleagues around Europe to work with us. Trade unions are all about solidarity, about working together in the common interest. We must make common cause to defeat David Cameron’s attack on working people and Social Europe.

 

“As trade unionists, we have a crucial role to play in winning the argument for an alternative. Our focus must not just be on jobs but on good jobs that pay a decent wage, that help build sustainable demand, and that give opportunity to those who need it most. Only collective bargaining can deliver this.

“Together we must make the case for a worker’s and citizen’s Europe, not a banker’s and financier’s Europe. If the EU is only about fiscal austerity, open markets and privatisation, then ordinary Europeans will increasingly question its legitimacy – and rightly so.

“For a generation, Europe prospered by balancing the interests of business and those of workers. It’s time to rediscover that bargain – and the sense of solidarity that underpins it.”

 

UK Feminista takes on Nike’s exploitation of female workers

9 May

Yesterday women and men from UK Feminista took to the high street to protest against the exploitation uncovered in factories Nike - Don't Do Itsupplying Nike.

The actions, taking place outside Nike stores in London and Glasgow, saw campaigners “cheat” their way through a series of races and hold a medal ceremony where Nike was awarded the title of “biggest cheat”.

The demonstrations are a response to new research(pdf) published by War on Want which has uncovered the systematic violations of workers’ rights in Bangladeshi factories supplying garments for Nike, Puma and Adidas.

Their findings, while depressingly familiar, are still shocking: all factories visited were illegally employing staff for more than 60 hours a week, and five of the six failed to pay the legal minimal wage.

But UK Feminista’s protest demands that we rethink Nike’s exploitative practices as an explicitly feminist issue.

Eighty five per cent of Bangladesh’s garment workers are women, and as such they experience distinct rights abuses as factory workers; 1 in 10 women workers are threatened with being made to undress, with 1 in 10 workers experiencing other sexual harassment.

Many are refused maternity rights or simply fired when discovered to be pregnant, an indication of the profound disregard by firms like Nike for women’s reproductive labour.

These statistics are enough to send any feminist out onto the street in protest. But an interrogation of the reasons why these low paid jobs are consistently filled by women reveals a web of structural and cultural relations of power that are built gender norms.

Women lack other employment opportunities due to poor access to education, and are affected by entrenched gender stereotypes around what constitutes ‘women’s work’. These include assumptions around their primary roles as carers rather than breadwinners, stereotyping women as supplementary earners and so excusing the payment of low wages.

In this way firms like Nike are able to profit from gender inequality through utilising a cheap, female labour force subsidised by stereotypes.

But should we be turning attention to women in Bangladesh at a time when life is so grim for women in the UK? The 2012 budget is set to hit women much harder than men by hacking away at the social services and benefits that women (particularly the poorest) rely on.

I would argue that we must keep our focus global, because the sexism underlying the labour market in Bangladesh, from which firms like Nike profit, is the same sexism that ensures George Osborne’s austerity measures will hit women hardest.

Assumptions about women’s roles as carers run right into the heart of the current global economic system. It is a system that relies on women’s unpaid caring labour, by seeking a society where government and corporations refuse responsibility for human need and the caring work it requires.

While Nike sources from factories that refuse to pay a living wage that can sustain life, and while they fire pregnant women, the UK government is demolishing the hard-won social services and benefits that recognise how society as a whole is responsible for caring labour, since society as a whole fundamentally relies on it.

The budget’s proposals to means test child benefit (not to mention Osborne’s vision of a deregulated labour market) are particularly stark rejections of responsibility for caring and reproductive labour. In both the UK and Bangladesh care is being shifted into the domestic sphere to be picked up by women.

Yesterday’s protest was not asking for boycott. Neither did it aim to ladle guilt onto women as consumers over where they shop. Instead it is a protest in solidarity with garment workers in Bangladesh which aims to spotlight how the ability of firms like Nike to reap huge profits relies on gender inequality and demand that Nike takes positive steps to end this.

And in highlighting Nike’s activities as a feminist issue, the protest is a call for more collective and transnational feminist action against a deeply sexist global economic system.

 Fiona Ransford, UK Feminista 

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