We must do all we can to enhance, protect and promote employees’ rights.

This week I was pleased to speak in a debate in parliament on employee rights. They can protect us when things go wrong, when companies get into difficulties or in the face of unscrupulous employers, and they have been hard won by labour and trade union campaigners over decades.

Read on for the full text of my speech…

Alison

Alison Johnstone chamber pic
Workers’ rights are human rights. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:

“Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”

That article goes on to cover equal pay for equal work, the right to just remuneration and social protection “worthy of human dignity” and the right to join trade unions. Those rights are also embedded in the European charter of fundamental rights and, in part, in the UK Human Rights Act 1998.

Strong employee rights are vital, but they face a barrage of attacks from the UK Government. We have heard from other MSPs about the Conservative plan for a 40 per cent threshold for strike ballots in health, transport, fire services and schools. As the minister and other colleagues have noted, the UK Tory Government, with 37 per cent of the vote, did not quite make the grade, but it still proposes abolition of the Human Rights Act 1998.

Employee rights are also under attack from the UK Government’s support of the transatlantic trade and investment partnership—the so-called free trade agreement that is really a corporate power grab that endangers workers’ rights. TTIP proposals will give corporations influence over laws and regulatory convergence risks lowering health and safety protections. That is an affront to democracy, and TTIP should be scrapped.

Governments have to be free to make changes that will improve the lives of their citizens. Raising the minimum wage to the living wage is exactly the sort of policy that the Greens will continue to fight for. In the general election campaign, we argued that, by 2020, the minimum wage should be £10 to ensure that nobody in work is faced with poverty. We also support the introduction of wage ratios.

The rise of zero-hours contracts, which have been much discussed in the debate, is another example of where workers’ rights are being eroded. They will work for a few people, but most exploit people who desperately need work. I support calls from the STUC for full employment protections for all workers, regardless of their employment status.

The Scottish Green Party supported the devolution of employment law during the Smith process and was disappointed that progress was not made. That support was not motivated just by the desire to see workers protected; it also makes sense. In its submission to the Smith commission, the STUC said:

“it is easier to imagine coherent policies on economic development, tackling inequality through public service provision, welfare and active labour market intervention if the Scottish Parliament is empowered to tackle discrimination, poor employment practice, insecure employment, low minimum wages and to create healthier workplaces and promote collective bargaining.”

Employment protections are fully devolved to Northern Ireland, so it can be done while maintaining a single labour market. Employment services and fair access to employment tribunals are referred to in the Government motion. Devolution there is warmly welcome.

Since the introduction of tribunal fees, there has been an 81 per cent drop in applications to the employment tribunal. That is a serious access-to-justice issue for workers. Citizens Advice Scotland, in its briefing for today, sets out its advisers’ experience. They found that “fees negatively alter the power balance between workers and employers” and that the decision whether to take a claim to the tribunal is no longer based on merit but is based on personal finances—can the person afford justice or not? With the fees that we have discussed this afternoon, that is no surprise. Often, those who most need to challenge employment practices are being priced out of doing so.

I support the Law Society’s view, which we heard in committee, that any limitations to tribunal devolution should be restricted to those that are objectively necessary.

The Scottish Parliament information centre has produced a comparison of the Smith agreement and the Scotland Bill. It has marked the devolution proposals on employment programmes in red because they did not address any of the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee’s concerns. That has to change and I hope that it will.

I, too, support calls for a weekend allowance for all staff in National Museums Scotland. Like others, I look forward to the establishment of a much-needed Scottish hazards centre that will actively campaign for safer and healthier workplaces and more effective enforcement by the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities.

Graeme Pearson spoke of his concern about the varying practices by trade unions in different parts of these islands. While he questioned the need for two different approaches, if the one approach that we have is regressive and truly woeful, I support having two different approaches.

Alex Johnstone spoke of “socialist failure”. Last night, I was watching the late news—it was on one of the major channels but I cannot remember which one—and I saw a dinner of bankers who were described as “the elite”. Is it not the case that, if the losses that they incurred had not been socialised, failure might have been truly catastrophic?

I suggest that this Parliament do all that it can to enhance, protect and promote employees’ rights.