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Government progress on Sustainable Development Goals falls short

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A new government progress report on securing decent work for all fails to take account of the rise in insecure work, modern slavery and the lack of training for workers.

Just days after his ejection from the Tory leadership, Rory Stewart has published a report that inadvertentlly lays bare the government's lacklustre approcah to ensuring decent work.

The Secretary of State for International Development fronts up a government update on its progress towards a range of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at home and abroad, which it is committed to meeting by 2030.

Of particular importance for workers is Goal 8, to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

The new progress report is full of familiar claims of high levels of employment and of pay “stability” albeit over short time frames.

But there is no acknowledgement of the scourge of insecure work and the paucity of training opportunities for many workers.

There is certainly no effort to analyse the enormous labour market inequalities in the UK and the widespread lack of adherence of rights in areas such as holiday pay.

An honest account of the working life in the UK would note that:

  • real pay remains lower than it was before the recession and is not expected to get back to that pre-crisis level until 2023
  • a quarter of workers are offered no training at their workplace other than a new starter induction
  • workers report crippling insecurity caused by the widespread use of zero hours or short hours contract and the failure of employers to honour sick pay or holiday entitlements
  • the UK still has one of the worst gender pay gaps in Europe.

Nor should the government get away with claims about its “commitment” to ending modern slavery.

This is hard to square with rules that permit a company to comply with the legislation by saying “We’ve taken no steps to tackle modern slavery”.

The evidence from the last 150 years is that when trade unions are strong, the economy is strong. So to create and preserve good jobs, we need policies and institutions that protect workers, foster inclusiveness and allow workers and firms to make the most of ongoing challenges.

Yet, at a time when trade unions are required by workers more than ever, the Trade Union Act 2016 has sought to further restrict unions' ability to organise.

We need:

  • new rights to give unions access to every workplace, and protection when they use social media, so that nobody has to face their employer alone
  • new rights for unions to bargain for fair pay and conditions across industries, ending the race to the bottom
  • an end to the unfair and undemocratic Trade Union Act that restricts the right to strike
  • stronger rights for elected workplace reps to have paid time off to be trained and to represent members.

We also need the government to work with key stakeholders to develop a coherent and comprehensive strategy to tackle modern slavery.

This includes ensuring that companies are required to tackle modern slavery in their supply chains – not just report on it.

It’s time for ministers to get serious about tackling modern slavery in supply chains by investigating and fining employers where they are not taking meaningful action.

In an introduction to the document, erstwhile Tory leadership contender Rory Stewart talks of the importance of “partnership” as a thread through the report.

But there is scant mention of trade unions.

If the government is serious about tackling decent work, and delivering the Sustainable Development Goals, it must start engaging with workers’ representatives.