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Time to put power back in the hands of workers

Published date
It was inspiring to hear Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell set out Labour’s plans to overhaul the ‘gig economy’ and address the imbalance of power in the workplace

Today I performed one of my favourite duties at Congress: the presentation of our annual Reps of the Year awards.

These awards recognise outstanding achievements by union reps. Every year I am so inspired by the work that they do to make the working world a better place.

So I want to congratulate Shirley Dunaway of Usdaw, Chris Cuomo of RMT, Lauren McCourt of BFAWU, Felicity Pryce of Usdaw and Theresa Farmer of GMB on their awards – you are the best of us and a true credit to our movement.

And I want to send a huge thank you to all our union representatives for the work that all of you do every single day to build safer, fairer and more equal workplaces.

Frances O'Grady with this year's winners of the Reps of the Year awards

Power imbalance

Later this afternoon we heard Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s powerful keynote address on Labour’s plans to overhaul the ‘gig economy’ and put power back in the hands of workers.

I agree with John that the government’s sustained attacks on rights at work have led to a gross power imbalance in workplaces.

Since coming into office, the Conservatives have done everything they can to restrict the ability of union members to organise collectively in defence of their jobs and livelihoods.

The 2016 Trade Union Act stops workers from exercising their fundamental right to strike to get a fair deal at work.

And the erosion of union rights has weakened our ability to negotiate effectively on behalf of working people.

Nearly four million people in the UK are in insecure work today thanks to the massive growth in zero hours contracts, bogus self-employment and the expansion of so-called ‘gig economy’.

Missed opportunity

Last year’s Taylor Review into modern employment practices was an opportunity to put this right.

But far from being the game-changer that working people needed, it let the government and employers off the hook.

There were no proposals to ban the zero-hours contracts that have taken root so quickly in UK workplaces.

The suggestion of a ‘right to request guaranteed hours’ from an exploitative boss would be no right at all for many workers, leaving workers with no more negotiating power than Oliver Twist.

And the introduction of a new category of “dependent contractor” seemed like caving in to special pleading from app-based companies, who claim they cannot pay the minimum wage like any other employer.

The Taylor Review will not end insecurity and exploitation at work because it simply doesn’t get to the root of the problem.

On the radio this morning, Matthew Taylor still spoke as if workers themselves demanded the introduction of exploitative zero-hours contracts.

Let’s be clear: zero-hour contracts were introduced by employers for the benefit of employers – and that’s why it’s time to get rid of them once and for all.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell addressing TUC150 Congress
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell sets out Labour’s plans to overhaul the ‘gig economy’ and put power back in the hands of workers.

Time for radical action

We need sweeping change to end the imbalance of power at work.

The plans that John McDonnell set out today include boosting trade union rights, modernising corporate governance structures and allowing workers to share the benefits of company ownership.

Gig economy workers will also get similar rights to those in permanent work, such as the right to maternity leave, protection from unfair dismissal and the right to join and be active in their union.

This is exactly the type of radical action that we need – concrete steps that will stop exploitation and give people a say over their working lives.

Stand down Theresa

But we can’t expect the current government to deliver anything like what working people need.

Two years after promising to help those who were ‘just about managing’, Theresa May has done nothing to get wages rising, nothing on zero-hours contracts, and nothing to clamp down on exploitation and insecurity in the workplace.

Workers deserve better than a government that only stands up for the billionaires. They deserve a New Deal that puts them first.

That’s why I believe it’s time for a change.

We need a better government than this one – a government that won’t put profits before people.

So in my speech to Congress yesterday I told Mrs May to stand down and take her ‘do nothing’ government with her.

Because if she can’t give us the New Deal that working people demand, we need to elect a new Prime Minister who will.

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