Category Archives: Workers’ rights

Tory trade union bill is spiteful, ideologically-driven & irrelevant

The Tories’ trade union bill, which had its second reading today in the Commons, is a bill of naked discrimination against the trade unions designed to severely cut funding for the Labour Party to try to entrench the Tories in power, as well as to make it virtually impossible to strike in certain industrial sectors.   However it’s worth quoting the two main purposes of the bill which the government itself pretends are its motives.   The first is: “to pursue our ambition to become the most prosperous major economy in the world by 2030”.   That is beyond satire.   The truth is that 7 years after the Great Crash averages wages are still 6% below pre-crash levels, productivity is flat, the FTSE-100 companies are not investing, and household debt is tipping £2 trillions.  The idea that after this bill we’re going to overtake the US and Germany within 15 years after a record like that is daft.

The government’s second reason for this bill is “to ensure hard-working people are not disrupted by little-supported strike action”.   The truth is, the number of days lost to strike action now is on average less than one-tenth of what it was during the 1980s.   Of far greater impact on the economy is the UK’s chronic under-investment in skills – something the unions themselves want to work with the government to fix.   The bill, while obnoxious, is irrelevant to Britain’s real problems.

The tube workers aside, only the teachers and firefighters have caused any real national concern since 2010, and even then they usually did so for just a day at a time.   And frankly, even the RMT’s resistance against plans to keep the Underground running all night isn’t that unreasonable.   Night shifts are unsociable, unhealthy and potentially dangerous where they lead to over-tiredness.   And it’s worth noting that private sector workers were responsible for more stoppages in 2013 than those working in the public sector.

But the central point here is that the government seems to believe that whenever a strike occurs, it’s always the fault of the workers irrespective of what the employer does.   The majority of employers may well be decent or reasonable, but there’s still a distinct minority who are intransigent or behave badly.   The last thing that workers want to do is go on strike, but when they have genuine, reasonable and pressing demands over such essential issues as job losses, safety problems and pay, and those demands are swept aside often with little or no negotiations, they have no alternative but to take industrial action, and then to pillory and penalise them rather than bad management, as the Tories and the Tory press automatically do, is utterly wrong and unfair.

The worst feature of the bill is making it almost impossible to take industrial action even in such conditions.   If for example 1,000 members are entitled to vote, the bill would require 400 members to vote in favour, but if the ballot achieved a 50% turnout, then it would require the sup[port of no less than 80% of those voting members.   That is frankly prohibitive, as it is intended to be.

The hypocrisy of the Tories as the workers’ party: making it impossible to strike

Strike action, fox hunting, the BBC, Europe, migrant benefits – never underestimate the Tory capacity to identify things that aren’t problems and then attack them.   The number of days lost to strike action is on average less than a tenth of what it was during the 1980s.   It’s not even as though strikes are constant – and certainly workers themselves are reluctant to strike because they themselves suffer the most – or have an enormous impact on productivity nowadays.   Of far greater impact is the UK’s under-investment in skills, which is something that unions want to work with the government to fix.   But the government’s latest proposals will upset the balance between employers and workers, tilting it much too far in employers’ favour and many of the proposals will make it far harder to resolve disputes fairly.   Yet good employers know that the best way to resolve problems at work is to sit down with workers and talk it through, trying to find a compromise, rather than using statutory power to ride roughshod over workers’ rights to impose authority by default.

Notoriously the bill introduces a 50% turnout ballot threshold in a strike ballot, but it also requires in the case of public services 40% support from all those eligible to vote which is a benchmark required nowhere else in any section of British society – certainly not in the election of the MPs who will be voting for it.   In addition workers will have to give an employer 14 days notice of strike action, and this is more than enough for employers to legally hire another workforce to break the strike, even though these workers may be inexperienced and not properly trained, but expected to cover important roles dealing with the public at short notice.   This blatant one-sided approach is guaranteed to poison the relationship between workers and their managers.

The proposal on opting into the political fund is also wholly one-sided.   It is clearly designed to throttle Labour funding and to make the Labour party bankrupt by cutting off the main source of funds that they have relied on since the 1930s.   It is clearly also aimed at undermining political campaigning by unions on behalf of their members and communities.   It sticks out like a sore thumb however that there are no proposals to force companies to ballot shareholders or place a cap on donations from wealthy people when funding the Tory party.

The Tory proposals may also criminalise peaceful picketing such as when a seventh person joins a picket line.   Is this really how we want to use police time – arresting the seventh nurse on the picket line outside the hospital where they work?   If the Tories were really concerned about improving workplace democracy, they’d commit to on-line balloting, an easy and secure way of letting workers have their say.   But they’re not, and it exposes what an utter sham it is for the Tories to claim to be anything remotely like a workers’ party.

Cameron-Osborne’s vendetta against the young could prove their downfall

Osborne really has got it in for young people – unless of course they are poised to inherit their grandparents’ £1 million home or will benefit from a higher inheritance tax threshold.   It will be young people who cop it from changes to universal credit that will deduct benefits faster as they earn more.   That will cost 3 million families an average of £1,000 a year according to the IFS.   Altogether some 13 million families, over half the population, will lose an average of £5 a week as a result of extending the freeze in working-age benefits, tax credits and local housing allowance, until 2020.

Then there’s unemployment.   The largest increase between 2008-13 was among 18-24 year olds, with 210,000 more out of work.   The latest figures show nearly half a million 16-24 year olds jobless, an unemployment rate of 13.7%, more than double the national average of 5.5%.   Even if they can find a job, Osborne’s over-hyped ‘national living wage’ won’t apply to those below 25 years of age.    The rate for 18-20 year olds will be a miserly £5.30 an hour, whilst for 16-17 year olds it will be slave rates of £3.87 an hour and and even £3.30 an hour for apprentices.

University fees are ending up putting poorer students into permanent debt.    When fees tripled to £9,000 a year, the maintenance loan was means-tested to target students from poorer families.   More than half a million students in England received the £3,387 maintenance grant last year, costing £1.6bn.   Now this grant is being turned by Osborne’s latest budget into another loan, of up to £8,200 a year.   So student debt will now rise to £51,000 after 3 years.   Unsurprisingly a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has recently found that the largest increases in poverty in the last decade has been among younger adults of working age.

As for housing, anyone aged 18-21 will no longer be automatically able to claim housing benefit under the new rules.   The exclusion of young renters from any State support comes as young earners are increasingly locked out of home ownership as a result of soaring prices.   The average age of a first-time buyer has rocketed from 29 to 38 over the last decade.   Nor is further education a way out.   Further education colleges face some of the biggest cuts in the comprehensive spending review due in the autumn.   Indeed the further education sector, which provides the bulk of the UK’s post-secondary training, faces possible collapse and the loss of the invaluable source of technicians and mechanics.

What have young people done to deserve these successive kicks in the teeth?   In today’s volatile political climate this Tory campaign against the young will surely boomerang against its perpetrators.

 

The ugly face of Tory callousness exposed

With the world’s biggest refugee crisis since 1945, it is perhaps predictable that the Tories’ reflex response is to sensationalise the issue, lie about the facts, and pull up the drawbridge.   May kicks it off with the falsehood that the vast majority of migrants to Europe are Africans motivated by economic self-interest, when in fact 62% reaching Europe by boat this year were escaping persecution from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan.   Foreign secretary Hammond portrayed them as marauders risking the collapse of European civilisation, when in fact the number of migrants who have arrived so far this year is precisely 0.027% of Europe’s total population.   Cameron himself described them as a swarm intent of getting welfare benefits, when in fact the number of migrants reaching Calais of those arriving in Europe this year is just 1% and each asylum seeker in Britain gets a measly £36.95 a week to live on, only just over £5 a day, and is not allowed to work to supplement this sum.

Nor has Britain taken anything like its fair share of refugees under the vindictive and callous standards of the Tories.   Last year 25,870 people sought asylum in the UK, but only 10,050 were accepted.   Germany took 97,275, France 68,500, Sweden 39,905 and Italy 35,180.   Calculated as a proportion to population size, Britain comes even lower.   Calculated on 2015 rates, Britain has been even meaner in its reception of asylum seekers than impoverished Greece!   Against the hysteria the government has generated, you would scarcely believe it that the number of refugees in the UK has actually fallen by over 75,000 in the last 4 years.

Then there is the deeply unsavoury Tory involvement in trafficked workers debt-bonded and forced to work in slavery conditions that has just come to light.   Noble Foods, the UK’s largest egg company, used labour provided by DJ Houghton, a gangmaster operation run by Darrell Houghton and Jacqueline Judge at Maidstone, Kent, and its chairman has been a major Tory party donor and lent Cameron a helicopter for the election.   The Lithuanian workers were held in overcrowded accommodation riddled with bedbugs and fleas, denied sleep and toilet breaks, and had their pay repeatedly withheld while Lithuanian supervisors acted as the Houghtons’ enforcers intimidating the workers with fighting dogs and threatening them with instant eviction if they complained.   So much for Cameron’s promise earlier this month to tackle modern slavery in Britain.

Now that the election is safely out of the way, other Tory acts of harshness and vindictiveness have started to trickle out.   They have shelved their manifesto commitment to cap care costs for the elderly in order to save £100m (out of a deficit still stuck at £90bn), on top of cutting by a quarter of a million the number of elderly and disabled persons receiving social care at all.   They have concealed till now that 1 in 6 of all job seekers are hit by benefit sanctions even though the independent social security advisory committee, chaired by the ex-permanent secretary of DWP, have made the case that there is no certain evidence that sanctions actually work in forcing people back into work, but they do cause hunger and impoverishment.

 

Osborne’s £12bn cuts mainly from those in work will backfire badly

Contrary to incessant Tory propaganda about a pervasive culture of welfare dependency, the evidence actually shows jobless benefits claims are now at a 35 year low, but will be put at risk if Osborne pursues his £12bn welfare cuts at the expense mainly of people in work.   Of the three out-of-work benefits – unemployment benefit and income support mainly for single parents and disabled persons – the proportion of the working age population receiving one of these benefits (according to the Resolution Foundation) peaked in 1993 at 17%.   It now stands at 10%, its lowest level since 1980.   The number of children living in workless families has also dropped from 20% in 1996 to 12.5% now.   There are now fewer than 100,000 workless couples with children (excluding where adults are disabled).   Moreover the UK employment rate for single mothers has risen from under 40% in the early 1990s to 62% now, and has continued to rise through this latest recession.

These statistics point to two important conclusions.   One is that the Tory-promoted stereotype about a welfare class opting for a life of State-funded leisure is utterly wrong.   The other is that the gains that have been achieved by providing significant financial support for working households are in danger of being eradicated if Osborne gets his way by victimising those on in-work benefits.   Because the government regards pension benefits as out of bounds, the welfare cuts will be mainly concentrated on tax credits and disability benefits.   But this will have perverse results.   Reducing the value of tax credits may well make it no longer economically worthwhile for people on the lowest paid margins to work.   Equally, if Osborne curbs Britain’s system of maternity pay and rights which has kept so many young mothers connected to the labour market, the economic incentive to stay connected will simply drain away.

The real answer of course is raising the wages of the depressed bottom third of the working population.  It has been estimated that the saving to the State in tax credits and in-work benefits would actually outweigh the cost of the higher wages.   What is really needed now is a significant rise in the minimum wage, currently £6.50 an hour, to a Living Wage standard of (say) £8 an hour which is then annually increased either in accordance with the national average wag or with inflation, whichever is the higher.

Osborne will certainly not do this.   But what he will do, just as his deficit-cutting machine will choke off growth, his welfare cuts machine will whittle away most of the employment gains of the last 20 years.

Cameron’s one-nation programme: pull the other one!

Like Thatcher declaring on the steps of Downing Street in 1979 that, like Francis of Assisi, ‘where there is discord, I will bring peace’, so Cameron in the Queen’s Speech debate has pledged a one-nation Britain – until one looks at the detail and reads between the lines.   To take one example, the most recent government statistics show that the poorest 10% of households pay 47% of their gross income in direct and indirect taxes, while the richest 10% pay just 35% of their income in taxes.   How is that to be addressed?   Further, the higher tax-free personal allowance will do nothing for the 44% of adults, including pensioners, whose income is already too low to pay any income tax. – which is why raising the personal allowances will do more to benefit the well-off than the poor.
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Tory Trade Union bill is an attack on a fundamental human right

Under the Tories’ proposed new law, strike ballots would need a 50% turnout for industrial action to be legal.   But in the case of ‘essential’ public services – health, education, transport and fire services – 40% of those voting have to have voted in favour.   In other words, 80% which is the combination of the general turnout proposal and the new 40% yes vote must have voted in favour.   That would make almost all strikes illegal, particularly in large and dispersed workforces where postal ballots rarely achieve this.   This is a blatant attack on the rightful role of trade unions in being able to protect their members against exploitation at work – several recent polls have consistently found that more than 70% of the public believe unions are ‘essential to protect workers’ interests’.
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Lack of affordable housing is next unexploded timebomb

Of all the explosive issues facing the new government housing, or rather the lack of it, is near the top of the list.   A first-time buyer needs to earn £77,000 a year to get on the housing ladder in London, according to a report just published by the accountants KPMG, whereas the average annual wage in the capital is just £28,000.   Across the UK as a whole a first-time buyer needs a minimum income of £41,000 to get on the property ladder whilst the average wage is only £22,000.   What this shows is that housing affordability is no longer just a problem for lower wage-earners, but has become an issue for all except the top 5% and those coming into a significant inheritance.   Nor is this just a question about the affordability of home ownership since studies show genuine anxiety about wider affordability now including the private rented sector following the squeezing out of Council housing.
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What should we look for in choosing a new leader?

Some of the reasons put forward in the papers for supporting leadership contenders are just plain daft: ‘he can look the part’ or ‘he’s up to the job’ – not even ranking style over substance can justify such silly comments.   But it’s all part of the digital age that presentation in a 1-minute television clip rates more with the viewers than what you say.   It chimes too with the collapse of political education and the loss of public meetings as a forum for detailed and participative debate on political issues.   It debases politics into a popularity fanfare which has the enormous advantage for the power brokers who really rule Britain that it distracts attention away from the democratic abuses they perpetrate day in day out which hobble the ambitions and prospects of so many millions below them. So, given that the whole purpose of the Labour Party is to transform the power structure so that all sections of society can prosper whilst at the same time dealing with the grotesque inequality and power domination at the very top, the first requirement in choosing a leader is that he or she must be a vigorous proponent of these principles.
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