Debate on Protecting Workers’ Lives

Clare spoke in the Scottish Government debate on Protecting Workers’ Lives recently, highlighting the good works carried out by the Trade Union movement, and the SNP Government’s commitment to dignity and respect at work through the Fair Work agenda. A full transcript follows.


The trade union movement has a proud history of protecting workers’ rights, born of a desire to combat exploitation and ensure a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. From the great advances of the industrial revolution, it was against a background of poor pay, poor conditions and disregard for the value of workers’ lives that the first workers’ co-operatives and unions grew.

As an active trade unionist myself, and a former trade union steward and divisional convener with Unison, I know at first hand the fantastic and vital work that trade unions do for their members. I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

Members of this Parliament need to work with trade unions in maintaining and developing productive and safe workplaces. We must also develop and implement the innovative fair work agenda, the five dimensions of which—effective voice, opportunity, security, fulfilment and respect—are central to our working lives. The fair work agenda seeks to balance the rights and responsibilities of employers and workers while creating benefits for individuals, organisations and society. It is unique in the world and shows that Scotland is at the forefront of productive workplace relations.

When we create the conditions in which workers’ skills and abilities are supported and developed, and when we promote opportunities for skills and abilities to be deployed, fair work is proven to generate high levels of productivity, performance and innovation, all of which contribute to a wealthier and more inclusive society.

Before members entered this chamber to represent our constituencies, back when we all had what we might call normal jobs, what did we value in our working lives? Was it a good salary? A beneficial work-life balance? Sick pay? Paid annual leave? Those and other benefits are not the products of corporate benevolence—although we should pay tribute to the many employers who look after their staff—but, largely, hard-won rights and benefits that we all have today because of the collective action of the trade union movement.

As Dave Moxham, the deputy general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress has pointed out, workplaces that have trade union recognition are likely to pay up to £53 a week more per worker, and union members are less likely to end up in an employment tribunal, because in unionised environments disputes and grievances are more often settled before they reach that stage. Moreover, unionised workplaces are safer workplaces.

Today, in Tory Britain, there are unprecedented threats to the movement. Following successive Conservative Administration attacks, union membership is less than half what it was when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. Employment is increasingly fragmented, with huge employers replaced by many small businesses, whose staff numbers are in the tens rather than the thousands.

Through the Trade Union Act 2016, the Westminster Government has sought to hobble trade unions’ ability to exercise their power at the negotiating table and be the voice of the ordinary worker. The 2016 act, which attacks the fundamental right to withdraw labour—to strike—was passed at a time when industrial disputes are at an historic low. In the words of the First Minister, it is

“an attack on basic human rights.”

The 2016 act requires a 50 per cent turnout threshold for any action to be legal—and that is even before the results have been counted. It makes it more difficult to take strike action, it singles out picket leaders for retaliatory action by vindictive employers, and it imposes more complicated membership rules.

It can cost an ordinary worker up to £1,200 to take a case through the employment tribunal. Since the UK Government introduced charges, the number of people who have taken a case has collapsed. The total number of employment claims reduced from 105,000 in 2013-14—the year in which charges were introduced—to 61,000 in 2014-15.

When the Scottish Parliament gets devolved power over employment tribunals, the SNP Government will seek to help ordinary workers by mopping up the Tory mess and abolishing the fees, so that people who have been poorly treated will be able to take action without facing the barrier of cost.

In Scotland, the SNP Government has given £2.2 million to support trade unions in accessing skills and lifelong learning opportunities, and we have invested in trade unions themselves, giving them a quarter of a million pounds to help them to modernise and offset some of the damage that the UK Trade Union Act 2016 has done. STUC general secretary Grahame Smith welcomed the support to mitigate the impact of the 2016 act. He said:

“the Scottish Government has again demonstrated its commitment to positive industrial relations through workplace democracy.”

The commitment to effective workplace relations has borne fruit. The number of days that are lost to industrial disputes is the lowest of all the UK nations—indeed, it has gone down by 84 per cent since 2007.

We need only look at my professional background—health—to see the value of partnership working between employers, trade unions and staff. There are far fewer disputes and there is much less industrial unrest and industrial action than is the case in other areas of the public sector. There are certainly far fewer industrial disputes than there are in NHS England. The partnership model allows the sharing of information, a development of relationships between the involved parties and for workers to be treated respectfully.

I support the motion because I support the alternative—the only alternative—to Tory attacks, and that is the SNP Government’s on-going commitment to the empowerment and dignity of ordinary working people, to upholding the rights of trade unions to represent their members and, above all, to protecting the human rights of all workers.


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