The first meeting of the Trade Union Congress took place back in 1868, just up the road in Manchester, then the engine of the industrial revolution. Those who met that day formed a national and united voice to defend trade unions and fight for the rights of every worker – creating the first real political representation for the working people of this country.
Since then, the British workplace has changed almost beyond recognition. If you’re a working person in the UK, you have something to thank our trade unions for. Unions have fought to give us the minimum wage, parental rights, holidays and sickness pay. But despite these hard-won victories, the role of our trade unions remains critical.
Workers today face a wave of new technological change, a culture of inadequate management, and a pressure not to exercise their workplace rights. In-work poverty is on the rise and zero-hours contracts are widespread. Under existing legislation, huge multinational companies can employ legions of low-paid, insecure staff, often in terrible working conditions – all whilst turning record-breaking profits. To make matters worse, these companies often pay very little tax at all in this country by using legal loopholes and tax havens registered overseas.
It is boom time for large multinational companies, but this success is not passed down to its employees, with British workers facing an uncertain and exploitative job market. Some workers 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? At times, the working conditions of the 19th century do not feel quite so unrecognisable.
History has shown us that trade unions are a perfect tool to make these workplaces fairer. With nearly 6.5 million members in the UK, they remain our largest voluntary, democratic organisations.
It doesn’t have to be like this – and I want to help fight for an alternative. That is why I have tabled a Bill in parliament which would expand the access rights of trade unions to the workplace.
We have seen the positive impact of laws like these in New Zealand, where unions have far greater access to workplaces. This has led to higher union membership, higher wages and more just and fair workplaces.
By strengthening our trade unions, we can restore dignity and respect at work and put an end to the exploitation and misery we see on the rise today.