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Crackdowns on worker protections and the rights of unions have seen the UK’s global rating on workers’ rights fall, a new report has revealed.
The International Trade Union Confederation found in its 2023 Global Rights Index that in the UK, union busting, laws curtailing the right to strike and protest, and violations of collective bargaining agreements have become “systematic” and led to the country’s rating dropping.
The shift in rating from a ‘3’ – meaning a nation is in regular violation of rights – to a ‘4’ – meaning a nation has systemic violations of rights – places the UK among some of the worst nations in the world for failing to adhere to basic workers’ rights and protections.
For the first time in the index’s 10-year history, the UK has slipped down the rankings and is now accused of a “systematic violation of rights” because of the introduction of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.
The legislation would effectively force workers to cross their own picket lines in sectors including health, education and transport deemed “essential”.
The fall in the country’s ranking means that the UK now sits alongside countries renowned for rights abuses – such as Qatar, Vietnam and Hungary. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) says that this is further proof that the UK will become “an international outlier” if the Strikes Bill is passed.
Leading employment rights lawyer Tonia Nowitz, Professor of Labour Law at Bristol University, says the UK’s global standing as a country that respects fundamental rights and freedoms is at “real risk”.
“There has been a dangerous decline in the UK’s international ranking and reputation,” she says. “If ministers press on with the Strikes Bill, the UK’s global standing as a country that respects fundamental rights and freedoms is at real risk.”
The UK’s actions have already come under scrutiny from international organisations. The United Nations’ workers’ rights watchdog, the ILO, recently slapped down the UK Government over its anti-union agenda and demanded it respect international law on the right to strike.
Strikes Bill Backfires
The Strikes Bill is currently making its way through Parliament and is due back in the House of Lords at the start of July. The Government has suffered repeated defeats on the bill in the Lords.
The bill would mean that, when workers lawfully vote to strike in health, education, fire, transport, border security and nuclear decommissioning, they could be forced to attend work – and be sacked if they don’t comply.
The legislation has faced a barrage of criticism from employers, civil liberties organisations, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Lords’ Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, race and gender equalities groups, employment rights lawyers, politicians around the world – as well as a whole host of other organisations.
Last summer, ministers changed the law to allow agencies to supply employers with workers to fill in for those on strike and break strikes. Unions are currently challenging the change in courts – with a judgment expected soon.
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The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), which represents suppliers of agency workers, described the proposals as “unworkable”.
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak says: “The right to strike is a fundamental freedom – but the Conservative Government seems hellbent on undermining it. The UK already has some of the most restrictive trade union laws in Europe. This draconian anti-strike bill will drag us further away from mainstream norms and make the UK an international outlier.
“There is no good reason for these new anti-strike curbs – they will poison industrial relations and do nothing to resolve current disputes. It’s little wonder that lawyers, politicians, rights groups and employers are all queuing up to criticise the legislation.”
He called for ministers to “see sense” and ditch the “draconian” bill without delay.
Imposed on Scotland
David Linden MP, the SNP’s social justice spokesperson, believes that the International TUC report paints a depressing picture.
“Consistent Tory clampdowns on the right to strike, and their attempts to rip up hard-won EU protections, have resulted in the UK being placed among some of the worst offending nations in the world on workers’ rights,” he says.
People in Scotland “should have been safe” from this had Britain remained in the EU, or Labour and the Conservatives not opposed the devolution of employment law, as the SNP have long called for, according to the MP.
“Unfortunately, as with too many other areas, we are at the mercy of a Westminster government with little regard for the ordinary people who keep this country going,” he adds.
He claims it is clear that “workers’ rights are not safe under Westminster control”.
The Scottish Government has pledged not to issue any “work notices” forcing staff who have voted to strike to come into work.
Wales Goes its Own Way
Nowak has praised the devolved government in Wales for “leading the way” with a pro-worker agenda. He has said that the Labour administration’s new Social Partnership and Public Procurement Act is a “blueprint” for delivering fair work and tackling inequality.
The Act imposes a duty on public bodies to:
- Reach consensus or compromise with unions on their strategic goals.
- Source goods, services and materials in a socially responsible way. This includes labour, so sub-contractors and outsourced staff will no longer be able to be treated as a second-class workforce.
- Provide employment opportunities for disadvantaged and marginalised groups. They must also deliver appropriate training, and ensure that employment rights, access to trade unions, and union representation are enforced and respected.
The Act has strong backing from workers in Wales with supporters outnumbering opponents by a factor of five to one, the West Wales Chronicle reported. The Welsh Government’s approach to union engagement is in “stark contrast” to the UK Government, the TUC has said.
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