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       Hazards special online report, September 2015
Unions challenge wrong-headed government attack that could cost lives
The government’s Trade Union Bill could put our lives at risk. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady says David Cameron’s plan would rob union safety reps of the rights and time they need to perform their role – so she says it has never been more important to get serious and get organised.

This government is very fond of saying that Britain has one of the safest occupational health systems in the world. There is some truth to that. In fact the rate of fatal injuries in the UK is the third lowest in Europe according to the European Statistical Agency Eurostat.

So what are the differences between what Britain does and the rest of Europe? One of the biggest factors of course is that Britain has far lower levels of heavy industry and mining compared to other countries, but even taking that into account, Britain is still doing much better.

Another factor is that Britain has a more developed safety culture than many other countries. Our Health and Safety at Work Act has been around for much longer than the comparable European legislation which came out 15 years later, so the risk assessment approach is more embedded in larger workplaces. We have also, in the past, had a far more effective regulator that most other countries in the world.

However, I think the biggest factor is simply the role played by unions.

The union effect

The stand-out reason Britain is relatively safer than many other countries is that we have more trade union health and safety representatives active in the workplace than almost any other European country. And we know that unions make workplaces safer.

SAJID WHO? As well as restricting safety reps’ facility time, business secretary Sajid Javid wants to ban strikes in key public services unless they are supported by at least 40 per cent of those eligible to vote. But the minister would not have been elected under these rules. In May's general election he was supported by just 38.3 per cent of those eligible to vote in his Bromsgrove seat.

The TUC report The Union Effect outlined the difference that unions make. Workplaces with trade union health and safety representatives and safety committees had half the serious injury rate of those without. That is a pretty big difference. While all other European Countries have health and safety representatives, many are not trade union representatives. Generally, those countries where representatives are appointed and supported by unions are, by far, the safest.

If union health and safety representatives make such a difference, you would have thought that it would be common sense to encourage and support them, regardless of any view on trade unions. So why is the Government doing the exact opposite?

One of the first acts that they did after the May 2015 election was to publish the Trade Union Bill. There is a lot in this Bill that will make life difficult for unions generally, but all I am going to cover is how it is likely to affect our work on health and safety.

Absolutely wrong

There are two proposals tucked in the Bill that relate to “facility time” in the public sector, which is the amount of time given to workplace representatives to represent their members and undertake union duties or activities.

Facility time is probably an unhelpful term when it comes to union health and safety representatives because their position is very different from that of many other representatives such as stewards, learning reps, equality reps and green reps.

In the case of health and safety representatives, there is a legal duty on the employer to give them as much paid time off as they need to undertake their activities as a union health and safety representative. That is laid down in regulation. It is absolute.

The regulations do not say that the employer can decide to restrict this time. If a representative needs it, they need it, and it will vary from week to week. That is why the TUC has usually advised against negotiating fixed “facility time” agreements for health and safety representatives, and instead said that agreements should ensure that they can take as much time as they need. Any agreed time should be for activities outside the representative’s own workplace, such as attending union meetings and conferences.

When it comes to facility time the Trade Union Bill does two things. Firstly it says that any public sector employer, who has at least one union health and safety representative, will have to record and publish all the time taken and any facilities provided. The definition of “public sector” is so wide it covers almost any employer who receives any kind of public funding and provides a public service, including charities and housing associations.

This proposal is bureaucratic, pointless and will just mean that both employers and union representatives will have to spend a lot of time on paperwork.

Unwelcome return

I think that this proposal comes from a time during the last government when Cabinet ministers were obsessed with the amount of time that unions were being given to perform those functions that they were legally entitled to do, and which had been enshrined in agreements with their employer.

Eric Pickles and Frances Maude in particular went on a mission against unions, backed of course by the Taxpayers’ Alliance. However before the May general election Francis Maude told MPs that “abuses” - his words - of "facility time" had been “dealt with”.

That is what makes the second proposal on facility time surprising. It is also a lot more dangerous. The Bill would allow ministers to restrict the rights to time off given to union health and safety representatives by amending the Health and Safety at Work Act. All they have to do is introduce new regulations. This is a really vindictive proposal, and of course an underhand one - sneaking in the right to make changes by Statutory Instrument into a much wider Bill.

The current time off regulations are clear and simple and apply to all workplaces where there is a recognised union. The government now seeks permission to tear these up in the public sector. Of course, even if the Bill did become law they could not do it entirely, as European legislation states clearly that employers have to allow health and safety representatives “adequate time off work, without loss of pay” to exercise their rights and functions. However, they may well try to reduce some of the current requirements on employers that are laid down in the 1977 Regulations (the ‘Brown Book’).

Simple prejudice

At no time has the government given any justification for this proposal. Any reasonable employer welcomes the presence of health and safety representatives, including most in the public sector. That is why this move makes absolutely no sense from a regulatory point of view. It will not save money or remove bureaucracy, nor will it improve safety. It is simply an ideologically-led knee-jerk reaction which is fuelled by simple prejudice against trade unions and what they stand for.

Of course other parts of the Bill will also affect our ability to protect our members.

The most obvious are the proposed restrictions on the right to take industrial action such as strikes or “working to rule”. Industrial action around health and safety is very rare, in fact strikes over anything are pretty rare compared to other countries or even the past in Britain. So when it does happen then it is clear that there are big problems in the workplace. And often it is defence of safety representatives.

Examples in the past few months where unions have had to consider industrial action over health and safety issues include a power plant where management refused to allow a union to represent contractors over safety issues; then there was a conference centre who sacked a union safety representative, and a couple of rail examples. In all but one of these examples the matter was resolved. Which shows that strike action, or the threat of action, can be a necessary tool in defending health and safety rights, and health and safety representatives.

Double standard

If the government gets its way it will be far more difficult to take any form of industrial action. The changes would introduce a minimum turnout, and, in the case of some public service workers, also insist that a certain proportion of those who are entitled to vote (40 per cent) do so in favour.

These are not restrictions that apply to elections for MPs, MEPs, councillors or other officials, or to company shareholders, or to anyone else I can think of in fact. Other restrictions include time limits for strike mandates, which will encourage employers to try to delay issues, or make meaningful negotiations more difficult. The Bill also proposes changes to picketing right.

Of course industrial action over health and safety is, as I have pointed out, a pretty rare occurrence. Much more common is the work that unions do to try to promote health and safety at parliamentary and EU level. Before the last election unions worked hard to get political parties to support a number of key points. They were partially successful in that the Labour Party promised a number of things such as increased inspection activity, more emphasis on preventing occupational ill-health and cancers, and of course a maximum temperature.

STRIKE ONE  If the government was really concerned about the harm to the economy caused by lost working days, it would be addressing the scourge of work-related ill-health not the by comparison tiny impact of strikes, the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) has said. [more]

Some unions use their political fund for this kind of campaigning political work, and with good effect. The government wants to restrict this as well by changing how this works. I think it is pretty obvious that the real agenda is to try to stop unions giving money to the Labour Party - but not businesses giving money to the Tories. However any changes will make it more difficult to campaign on the issues that affect their members – including health and safety.

Unbalanced action

Overall this Bill is one clear aim, which is to restrict the ability of trade unions to organise collectively and support their members. The government wants to shift the balance even further in favour of employers. Yet, given the massive reduction in inspection and enforcement activity by local authorities and the HSE, the only protection that many workers have is their trade union, and the health and safety representatives they appoint.

Anything that prevents us acting on behalf of those that need us will undermine health and safety in the workplace and that must not be allowed to happen.

The TUC and trade unions will be doing all in their power to prevent this happening. But regardless of what happens, we are not going away. We are going to keep on recruiting and negotiating, and organising and protecting our members in every way we can, just as we always have done and will continue to do so in the future.





Bill exposes government’s strike hypocrisy

If the government was really concerned about the harm to the economy caused by lost working days, it would be addressing the scourge of work-related ill-health not the by comparison tiny impact of strikes, the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) has said.

Following the publication of the Trade Union Bill, STUC general secretary Grahame Smith said: “This Bill starts from the false premise that unions are bad and their activities need to be curtailed. This is contrary to the approach we are taking in Scotland where unions, employers and government are working together through the Fair Work Convention, to promote the very positive role unions play at the workplace, and across the economy and society in tackling low pay, job insecurity, inequality, underemployment and skills shortages to improve productivity and economic success and to reduce poverty.”

He added: “The Bill also starts from the false premise that we have a strike problem. We do not. Last year there were only 151 strikes. Less than 2 per cent of workers participated in a strike. The days lost due to strikes were less than 3 per cent of the 28.2 million days lost due to work related accidents and ill-health. If the Tories really cared about dealing with workplace issues they wouldn’t be diluting health and safety laws as they are and attacking the role of workplace union reps who play a vital role in ensuring that workers are not killed or injured at work.”

The STUC leader concluded: “We know this Bill has nothing to do with democracy or participation. It is about shifting the balance in industrial relations even more in favour of employers and will result in more insecurity at work, higher levels of inequality, and more workplace deaths and injuries. It will not be good for workers and it will not be good for employers or the economy.”

In July 2015, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) warned against reducing employment rights in the name of economic development. ILO noted: “Employment regulation can provide protection to workers without harming job creation.” Business researchers in the UK have warned that the government attacks on union facilities time could in fact reduce productivity. Research at London’s Cass Business School and Warwick Business School suggested the plans could be “detrimental to the government’s aspirations” to improve productivity, the Morning Star reported.


Have you taken strike action to protect your rights?

No-one takes the difficult decision to go on strike lightly. But the right to strike is key to making employers listen to workers. And research has shown that industrial action is part of the armoury that makes trade unions so effective in defending health and safety standards at work, with a London School of Economics study finding: “Strikes and slow-downs serve as efficacious union tools for reducing workplace injuries.” The TUC says government’s trade union bill “threatens the right to strike – and that’ll make it harder to raise safety concerns, oppose job cuts or service closures, or win better conditions.” It adds: “That’s where you come in. If you have been involved in a recent dispute that has resulted in strike action, please tell us your story.” It is quick and easy to send details of your action online, saying why it was important you took strike action and the outcome of that action.

Tell TUC what you did and why.


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The government’s Trade Union Bill could put our lives at risk. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady says David Cameron’s plan would rob union safety reps of the time they need to perform their role – so she says it has never been more important to get serious and get organised.

•   The union effect
•   Absolutely wrong
•   Unwelcome return
•   Simple prejudice
•   Double standard
•   Unbalanced action

Related stories
•   Bill exposes government’s strike hypocrisy
•   Have you taken strike action to protect your rights?

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