A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work has been the motto of labour movements around the world since the birth of trade unions back in the 1800’s. And yet, in this day and age, in this allegedly wealthy country, one of the current high profile campaigns for workers’ rights is the fight against unpaid trial shifts.

It is unacceptable that people should be expected to work trial shifts for absolutely no pay and I was pleased to speak in a debate in Parliament last week on this very subject.

As a committed trade unionist, I have passionately fought against discrimination and unfair working practices throughout the whole of my professional life.

Before being elected to the Scottish Parliament , I was proud to be a divisional convenor for UNISON – the trade union I am still a member of today.

And as an MSP, I’ve continued to be an advocate for the rights of workers: using my first speech in the Scottish parliament to criticise the pernicious Tory Trade Union Act; and by having the privilege of chairing the SNP Holyrood trade union group.

It comes as a real source of frustration that, when we are made aware of issues like the use of unpaid trial shifts, we cannot legislatively do anything about it at our Parliament, due to employment law still being reserved to Westminster.

The blocking of these powers by opposition parties during the Smith Commission has proven to be a significant miscalculation.

My colleague, Stewart McDonald, the MP for Glasgow South, has been doing terrific work in his campaign to scrap unpaid trial shifts.

Stewart’s Private Members’ Bill at Westminster has the backing of MPs from all parties, so it is absolutely vital that they turn up in their numbers and vote for its progression on the 16th March.

Stewart’s own research found that over 55% of people either had or knew someone who had been offered an unpaid trial period, whilst a study by Middlesex University published last year estimated that £1.2bn in wages remains unpaid in Britain each year – and unpaid trial periods contribute to this figure.

Most people do not object to trial periods being offered by employers, as they are of course a legitimate way to assess a candidate’s skills and suitability. Similarly, they give an individual an opportunity to assess if a workplace suits them. However, what is objectionable is the fact that these trial periods are often unpaid.

One stark example is the tea firm ‘Mooboo’ who were found to be asking trainees to work a full 40 hours for free. A full week’s work, yet not a single penny in pay.

Rightly, there was widespread condemnation of the company with a petition signed by more than 40,000 people urging them to drop their policy – which thankfully they agreed to.

Since launching his Bill, Stewart has also heard from people who suspect that some businesses are even using unpaid trial shifts to plug staffing shortages with no intention of ever offering an applicant the job.

This cannot be right – and it should not be legal.

If someone is required to work a trial period before securing a position – no matter whether they are offered the job at the end of it or not – then they should be duly paid for doing so.

Unpaid trial shifts are clearly a prevalent practice; they are demeaning and exploitative; and legislation is therefore required to offer people better protection in the workplace.

It was disappointing, but perhaps not surprising, that no Conservative MSPs signed the debate motion last week, particularly since Theresa May insists they are the party of the workers!

With Brexit on the horizon, many of our workers’ rights could soon be eroded, so it is refreshing to see a Bill introduced which would extend our protections and not cut them.

During my first speech in Parliament, I said that: “…fairness means access to fair work for fair pay…” and I fully stand by those remarks today.

No one should be deprived of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, and that is why I support Stewart McDonald’s Bill to ban unpaid trial shifts.



Date published: 31st January 2018

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