Unite takes battle for trade unions rights to United Nations

Unite takes battle for trade unions rights to United Nations

13 October 2015

Representatives from Unite, the UK’s largest union, will address the UN tomorrow (Wednesday 14 October) as part of a delegation from the Human Rights Consortium including NGO’s and trade unions to highlight breaches of the UN Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural rights.

The meeting in Geneva will discuss a number of topics including children’s rights; disabled women benefit sanctions and their impact as well as the numerous infringements of the UN Covenant which relate to the rights of trade unions Article 8. Unite will draw specific attention to a number of clauses in the UK Government’s Trade Union Bill which will severely constrain the right to strike and the use of agency workers in a lawful dispute.

The union delegation will also raise concerns about the Scottish Government’s guidance on procurement which includes a statement on paying the Living Wage. Unite is concerned that the Scottish Government’s guidance on a Living Wage in the procurement process is ineffective given the blacklisting guidelines have all but been ignored. This states that companies revealed to have blacklisted could be excluded from bidding for contracts.

Unite will highlight that since the guidance on blacklisting for public bodies was introduced between November 2013 and December 2014, sixteen procurement contracts were issued to companies known to have blacklisted workers. The value of these contracts totalled almost £900 million.

Mary Alexander, Deputy Scottish Secretary of Unite said:
“The right to strike and to protest are fundamental human rights which should be respected in a free and democratic society. The UK Government’s Trade Union Bill will impose severe restrictions on trade unions. The facts are the number of days lost to industrial action has fallen dramatically over the last 30 years. So this issue is not about the facts but an all-out assault on human rights.

“We are confident after presenting our case that the UK Government will be found guilty of multiple breaches contained in the UN Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural rights.

“Unite is also concerned that the Scottish Government guidance on the Living Wage could be ineffective given that it has side-lined existing guidance on blacklisting.”

The full detail of the delegation’s submission and its legal basis can be found in the notes to editor.


For further information contact Mary Alexander on 07711 237075 or Andrew Brady on 07810 157922.

Notes to Editors:

Attack on trade union rights (covered under Article 8)
There has been a relentless attack on workers’ rights and organised labour in the UK for almost four decades which has undermined workers’ legal protections and introduced a series of anti-trade union laws in the UK by consecutive governments. Such attacks on trade union rights must be challenged as attacks on fundamental human rights. The Trade Union Bill is a direct attack on workers’ rights including the right to organise; the freedom of association; the right to function freely; the right to peaceful protest; the right to strike and the rights on freedom of expression.

Right to strike – Breach of Article 8.1(d)
The proposals on voting thresholds will require 50% of workers in a workplace to vote for strike action before it is legitimate. Abstentions, that is those that do not vote either way in the ballot, will be treated as ‘No’ votes. (The ILO state only votes cast should be taken into account.)

According to the ILO Freedom of Association Committee :
‘The requirement of a decision by over half of all the workers involved in order to declare a strike is excessive and could excessively hinder the possibility of carrying out a strike, particularly in large enterprises.’

In the 1980’s around 7 million days were lost each year compared with 2010, when on average, around 647, 000 days were lost due to industrial action.

Right to picket – Breach of Article 8.1 (a, c & d)
The Bill also includes plans to infringe the freedom of association and the right to peaceful protest as well as on the freedom of expression. Currently the law protects workers engaged in peaceful picketing at their workplace. There are already provisions in place which require unions to comply with specific legislation including limiting the number of people on a picket line to six. Under proposals contained in the Bill, unions must now appoint a picket supervisor to oversee the picket. They must hold a letter of authorisation with them at all times and present this to ‘whoever reasonably asks to see it’, including the police.

Restrictions on right to protest linked to industrial action – Breach of Article 8.3
Article 8 (3) relates to the protection of the Right to Organise
Under the plans, unions will be required to publish details of when they intend to hold a picket or protest; where it will be held; how many people it will involve and whether they plan to use loudspeakers, banners or any other ‘props’. The proposals also require that unions report any plans to conduct campaigns using social media, i.e. twitter or Facebook. They will also have to report, in advance, on any likely content of any website set up to raise awareness in the protest as well as proposals that the actions of pickets and protesters will be regarded as anti-social behaviour and could be criminalised.

If unions fail to update information, or fail to notify their intentions of the activities, they could face financial penalties as well as possible criminal proceedings for intimidation on a picket line. This could be for something as innocent as trying to dissuade someone from crossing the picket line.

Agency workers – Breach of Article 8.3
The Bill seeks to remove the current ban on using agency workers to replace striking workers, which has been in place since 1973. This legislation seeks to prejudice guarantees under ILO conventions 87 and 98 as well as breaching Article 8.3 of the ICESCR. Employment Agencies themselves have condemned this proposal as likely to increase tension and place agency workers in an intolerable situation – cross picket line or lose work. Also concerns regarding using agency workers in certain jobs where skills, knowledge and experience are required in order that H&S issues are not breached.

Public procurement
Specifically issues of blacklisting, umbrella companies, zero hours contracts and living wage are a Breach of Articles 6 & 7
Article 6 relates to the right to work including the right of everyone to gain a living by work which is freely chosen or accepted. The Article goes on to include full and productive employment under conditions safeguarding fundamental political and economic freedoms to the individual.

Article 7 recognises the right of everyone to just and favourable working conditions and in particular remuneration, fair wages, a decent living, safe and healthy working conditions, equal opportunities, rest, leisure and reasonable limitations of working hours and periodic holidays with pay, as well as remunerations for public holidays.
The Scottish Government procurement process breaches some of the terms within Articles 6 & 7.

The growth of insecure two-tier work in the labour market is driven by numerous loopholes and inadequacies in our labour law, not least of which is the arbitrary legal distinction between ‘workers’ and ‘employees’ that means that many ‘employees’ are not entitled to legal rights and protections. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimate 1.4 million (April 2014) people are employed on zero hour contracts in the UK, rising from 134, 000 in 2006. Issues such as introducing the living wage in all public sector contracts including the supply chain, would address issues of inequality and fair wages and lift thousands out of poverty. This must be a pre-requisite on all public sector contracts.

Umbrella companies/false self-employment – Breach of Article 6.1 & 7(d)
These legal scams were set up to shift administration costs on to workers who thereby receive a lower rate of pay than the rate agreed when they took on the work. These contracts deny workers the opportunity to gain ‘a living by work, freely chosen’, and should be banned. Workers are employed on inferior terms and therefore are also engaged in ‘less than full and productive employment’ given that the scam shifts the paying of employers tax, NI and administration costs, to the worker, reducing their agreed rate for the job.
It is estimated that around 50% of all those working in the construction industry in the UK are falsely employed on such contracts and that around 200,000 people are employed by umbrella companies in the UK. According to UCATT, the construction sector union in the UK, the UK Treasury loses around £3800 for every construction worker employed on such contracts. Therefore on lower estimates this would put the loss to the UK economy of tens of millions of pounds each year.

Workers are classified as being ‘self-employed’ which removes them from accessing many employment rights including statutory sick pay, holiday pay, and statutory maternity/paternity pay or pensions. This is in breach of Article 7(d). The practice is particularly common in the construction sector however evidence is that it is spreading to other sectors of the economy.

Blacklisting – Breach of Articles 6.1 & 6.2 and Article 8.1 (a)
Blacklisting is a clear breach of human rights and in particular Articles 6.1 & 6.2 and Article 8.1 (a). Workers are unable to gain employment, some for decades, due to their names appearing on a list found in The Consulting Association offices, who collated names which were then supplied to construction companies. This is a clear breach of the human rights of these workers and we believe blacklisting continues today.

Companies which have blacklisted workers on political grounds, trade union membership or for raising issues around health and safety should be refused future procurement contracts and banned from the bidding process unless they take suitable remedial action. This includes admitting their part in blacklisting workers, providing adequate compensation and employing workers previously blacklisted. More generally, Unite would wish to see an independent Scottish public inquiry into blacklisting to allow blacklisted workers the opportunity to obtain answers and hear companies admit their part in the process.