Working conditions at some companies today are reminiscent of the deplorable practices of the 19th century. We must restore dignity at work and put an end to this exploitation, writes Faisal Rashid
Every day, trade unions are on the frontline – fighting poverty, fighting inequality, fighting injustice and negotiating a better deal for working people. At present, there are almost 6.5 million trade union members in the UK, making them this country’s largest voluntary and democratic organisations. The role they play has never been more critical than today, as in-work poverty is on the rise and zero-hours contracts are widespread. But after a barrage of anti-trade union legislation, workers have found their ability to organise and take industrial action to challenge these injustices greatly restricted.
Under existing legislation, huge multinational companies can employ legions of low-paid, insecure staff, often in terrible working conditions – all while turning record-breaking profits. British workers are faced with an uncertain and exploitative job market, while it is boom-time for large multinational companies.
It is no exaggeration to say that working conditions at these companies are at times reminiscent of the deplorable practices of the 19th century. From 2015-2018, a shocking 600 ambulance calls were made to Amazon warehouses. Workers in these warehouses have recounted urinating in bottles for fear of being disciplined for a toilet break. Heavily pregnant women report being refused permission to sit down for a break during twelve-hour long shifts. How can we allow this to happen in the UK in the twenty-first century?
‘How can we allow this to happen in the UK in the twenty-first century?’
I have spoken to countless trade union officials who tell me that, despite the widespread desire for improved rights and conditions at work, efforts to unionise staff in these workplaces are often fruitless. In large part, this is because there are currently no rights of access for trade unions to enter the workplace and speak to workers for the purposes of recruitment. Workers at Amazon have had their shift patterns interrupted and randomised simply to prevent them from talking to union officials on the way in to work. Union representatives visiting McDonalds across the UK to speak to workers about the benefits of joining a trade union are being routinely thrown out of stores, having their presence reported to senior regional managers.
It doesn’t have to be like this: by expanding trade union access to workplaces, we can restore dignity and respect at work and put an end to the exploitation and misery we see on the rise today.
In New Zealand, this is already taking place. Under the 2018 Employment Relations Amendment Act, unions there have far greater access to workplaces. Workers in New Zealand can speak to union representatives in their place of work, leading to higher union membership, higher wages, and more just and fair workplaces.
Under this legislation, all that is required is that the union provides a short period of notice that they will be visiting the workplace, allowing for management to add the extra staff member needed for the duration of the visit. The situation is beneficial for all involved: disruption to the business is kept to an absolute minimum, whilst workers’ legal and human right to join and form a union is properly adhered to.
I want to see similar legislation adopted in this country. It is a myth that strong trade unions damage our economy: if strong trade unions drive down productivity, why has the UK long suffered from a ‘productivity gap’ – despite having the most restrictive trade union laws in Western Europe? In truth, a happy, well-respected workforce is also a productive one.
The stories I have heard from union officials paint the opposite picture – too many people in this country feel exploited and dispensable at work. If we are to transition away from a low-wage, precarious economy, increasing the collective bargaining power of our workers is critical. That is why I’m fighting to improve trade union access to the workplace: we need stronger trade unions and a better deal for working people.