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General Council Report 2020

TUC Congress 2020
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Respect and a voice at work
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4.1 Introduction

Across the year the TUC has worked with unions to challenge discrimination and promote equality, and to make the case for decent rights and protections at work. We have worked to counter the rise of the far right, both in the UK and internationally. We have taken forward our work on class inequality, highlighting the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 crisis on people in working-class jobs. And we have continued our lobbying and campaigning work on behalf of BME workers,  workers, women and LGBT+ workers, with a strong focus once again on tackling sexual harassment.

The TUC has also stepped up policy and campaign work around trade union and employment rights, including the right to flexible working. Health and safety remains a major priority, with our work in this area brought into sharp focus by coronavirus. And with the economy faltering in the midst of the pandemic, we are continuing to call for greater investment in workforce skills, including stronger rights for apprentices.

4.2 Special feature: Tackling the far right

The rise in cases of coronavirus in the UK has been accompanied by an increase in racism and xenophobia. Incidents of hate crime against Chinese people in the UK increased threefold in the first three months of 2020. Islamophobic and antisemitic conspiracy theories and false claims have been shared widely on social media, blaming Muslims and Jews for developing or spreading the virus. The far right has exploited the crisis to promote its divisive racist worldview.

In this challenging context, and as set out in resolution 41, we have continued to develop and actively promote our online learning materials to build union reps’ knowledge and confidence to challenge far-right activity and views in the workplace. This has included new materials on holding challenging conversations, supporting reps to prevent far-right propaganda spreading by talking to people who have been influenced and getting them to question the far right’s lies. We have also developed online learning materials on antisemitism, rooted in our understanding of antisemitism as a form of racism. The materials will support reps to understand the historical context of antisemitism, identify it and positively challenge antisemitism when it occurs. The General Council supported the UN Day against Racism and Xenophobia through a digital mobilisation, with input from a range of countries.

The TUC has been integrating its equalities and international work to challenge the growth of the far right, building international contacts with sister centres and unions. During TUC Congress 2019, we organised a roundtable of international guests to share strategies being employed by their respective union organisations to combat the growth of the far right. We are encouraging both the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to support the development of an international network of unions and centres to share strategies.

In February, the TUC coordinated a union roundtable where speakers from Germany and Ireland presented their findings on the growth of the far right and workplace strategies to confront it. The TUC also supported an international panel at our women’s conference on the far right and misogyny. We continue to work with the DGB, the German trade union centre, to develop a joint pilot initiative to combat the far right in the workplace, and two sessions at the Organise 2020 festival focused on tackling the far right, with international speakers from Brazil, the US and Ireland. To inform our work in this area we have also commissioned a report on the internationalisation of the far right.

4.3 Addressing class inequality

In line with resolution 35 on class inequality, the TUC has continued to highlight class-based discrimination and disadvantage. This has been particularly prevalent throughout the coronavirus pandemic, when those in working-class jobs have often borne the most risk but received the least reward. TUC analysis showed that four in ten people in key worker jobs – some 3.7 million people – are paid below £10 an hour. These jobs are disproportionately carried out by women, who are twice as likely as men to be in key worker occupations, and by BME employees.

TUC research also showed that the lowest-paid workers have been least able to work from home. For example, in the accommodation and food sector, just 14 per cent of employees have been able to work from home during the pandemic, compared to 87 per cent in the information and communication sector. Occupational sick pay is also less available to those in lower-paid jobs. Across the economy, an estimated 26 per cent of employees (7 million people) get only the basic statutory entitlement. In caring and so-called ‘elementary’ occupations, this rises to over a third of all workers, leaving people with a tough choice between going to work when sick or missing out on vital pay.

As we argued in our Building Working Class Power report, published at Congress 2019, these inequalities reflect the systematic undervaluing of working-class jobs. We know that the best way to improve pay and conditions for all workers is through strong unions and collective bargaining – and have put these arguments at the centre of our plans for economic recovery.           

4.4 Employment and trade union rights

In line with composite 8, the demand for strong legal rights for trade unions, including the right to strike and picket, has been at the heart of the TUC’s work over the last year.

This activity stepped up ahead of the 2019 general election, when the TUC highlighted the need for a far greater role for collective bargaining as a means of securing better pay and conditions for workers. This included close engagement with the Labour Party on its employment rights plans.

We have also pressed for the establishment of new bodies for unions and employers to negotiate across sectors. There are several sectors where this could have a huge impact on conditions, including hospitality, social care and, as set out in resolution 29, seafaring.

We have also continued to push for strong enforcement of rights, meeting regularly with the Director for Labour Market Enforcement, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), HMRC and the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, pushing government to increase the resources for enforcement, including of employment agencies.

The TUC engaged with the certification officer about the challenges trade unions faced meeting the requirements of legislation and their own rulebooks during the coronavirus pandemic. We successfully pressed her to provide greater clarity about the certification officer’s approach to breaches.

In line with resolution 28, we have ensured that the interests and perspectives of self-employed workers have been reflected in our work. During the pandemic, we liaised with representatives of unions with large numbers of self-employed members, lobbied for wage support for self-employed workers, and called for the self-employed to have fair access to social security.

To continue to influence the political agenda while the country was in lockdown, our output included a series of video interviews with leading experts on labour law, the gig economy, artificial intelligence and labour markets.

The TUC has argued vociferously for electronic balloting for statutory elections, in line with resolution 23. In January, we convened a meeting with senior Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) officials and Sir Ken Knight, who produced a review of electronic balloting.

This was followed up by a letter setting out the case for the government, after an excessively long delay, to respond to Sir Ken’s 2017 report, commission pilots of electronic balloting and allow groups currently disadvantaged by the existing insistence on postal ballots to play a full role in unions’ democratic structures.

In June, we also wrote to Business Secretary Alok Sharma, arguing that a range of organisations already use e-balloting, which rendered the ban on unions’ use of this technology particularly anomalous.

In line with resolution 18 on Christmas and New Year working, the TUC used its Christmas press comment to insist that bosses should reward staff fairly for the inconvenience of working on Christmas Day and loss of time with their loved ones. It also drew attention to Usdaw’s call for shops to be closed on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

The Conservative manifesto and Queen’s Speech committed to “encouraging” flexible working and consulting on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to. Prior to this, as part of its consultation on “proposals to support families”, Beis consulted on whether there should be a requirement for employers to consider advertising jobs as flexible.

In line with composite 9, we believe the most effective way of making flexible working the default is to move away from an individualised request-based system towards an organisation-wide duty. The TUC believes employers should be prompted to look at job design, rather than trying to shoehorn flexibility for individuals within roles and workplace cultures that are fundamentally inflexible.

Following extensive consultation with unions, the TUC responded to the Beis consultation by recommending that government should introduce a duty for employers to offer flexible working as the default by advertising all jobs as flexible from day one (unless there are exceptional circumstances preventing it). This new duty should be accompanied by a significant strengthening of the existing legislation extending the right to request to all workers, from day one in the job, and giving employers much narrower discretion to reject requests.

We campaigned for a day one right to flexible working as a member of the FlexForAll coaliltion along with the Fawcett Society, the Young Women’s Trust, the Fatherhood Institute, Gingerbread, Pregnant then Screwed and MotherPukka. Our petition gained over 30,000 signatures.

The TUC represented unions as part of a Beis flexible working taskforce, using our membership to argue for day one rights for all workers to flexible working.

4.5 Tackling sexual harassment

The TUC continued its high-profile #ThisIsNotWorking campaign, supported by an alliance of unions, women’s and LGBT+ organisations and civil society groups, working together to highlight the inadequacy of the current legislative framework around tackling sexual harassment. Along with the alliance, we continue to call for a new duty on employers to ensure all workers are protected from sexual harassment and third-party harassment, regardless of their employment status.

Following huge public and political engagement with the campaign, the government published a consultation on a preventative duty for employers. After in-depth engagement with unions and partner organisations, we led a huge response to the consultation, setting out the case for a new legal duty that would require employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment and victimisation at work.

The 2020 HeartUnions week focused on ending sexual harassment at work. Reps across the country took part in a large-scale organising campaign to demand employers embed a preventative approach to sexual harassment in their workplaces.

In line with composite 10, the TUC worked with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to support negotiations and the adoption of Convention 190. The UK government supported both the Convention and its non-binding recommendation at the International Labour Conference (ILC) in 2019, and we have been working with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to agree a firm commitment to ratification.

4.6 Securing equality

Across the year the TUC Race Relations Committee worked on a range of race equality issues, prioritising its efforts to improve the organisation and recruitment of black workers. The Race Relations Committee and TUC continued to highlight the problem of racism in the UK. In line with resolution 34, the TUC has continued to lobby for ethnicity pay gap reporting, responding to a consultation on this in October 2019.

The Race Relations Committee has continued to campaign for justice for those who suffered as a result of the Windrush scandal and for the dismantling of the hostile environment. In January, the TUC convened a meeting of Thompsons solicitors and affiliated unions to discuss how to use the Windrush Compensation and Social Security Bill as a means of highlighting the lack of compensation received by victims. The TUC also produced a briefing calling for the Windrush compensation scheme to be administered by an independent agency rather than the Home Office, and for Parliament to discuss the basis of the scheme.

In July, the General Council agreed to revisit the work of the TUC’s Stephen Lawrence Task Group and establish a new initiative to address institutional racism at work and in society, and within our own trade union movement. The new group will start its work after Congress 2020.

In line with resolution 37, the TUC continued to call for gender pay gap legislation to be strengthened, including for reporting requirements to be accompanied by mandatory employer action plans and for smaller employers to be required to report their pay gaps. In March, the TUC published new analysis showing that the UK’s persistent gender pay gap means women effectively work for free for two months a year. The report highlighted larger gender pay gaps at regional and sectoral level.

Increasing pay transparency is another key part of the fight against unfair pay, helping to expose the many different forms of pay discrimination and inequality women workers face.

In January, the TUC published new analysis that found one in five workers are subject to pay secrecy clauses. We demanded a ban on these clauses and argued for stronger collective bargaining rights, so that trade unions can ensure transparent and fair processes for setting pay.

In line with resolution 42, we continued to organise against the gendered nature of poverty, highlighting the impact of gender inequality at work and changes to the social security system that have disproportionately impacted women and girls, particularly disabled, BME and migrant women. The TUC Women’s Committee held a successful event focusing on the practical steps trade unions can take to eradicate period poverty and tackle the menstruation taboo in workplaces.

The TUC has continued to highlight workplace issues faced by disabled workers. We have run a national campaign calling on government to introduce mandatory disability pay gap reporting, along similar lines to gender pay gap reporting. We highlighted that 4 November is the day in the year when disabled workers effectively stop being paid and start working for free. And we have exposed the double discrimination facing disabled people, as they are less likely to be employed, and when they are they earn less than their non-disabled peers.

In line with resolution 55, the TUC called for the creation of a new National Independent Living Support Service (NILSS), enshrined in law, co-created between government and disabled people. We set out the need for the service to be underpinned by a new universal right to independent living, and highlighted our support for NILSS in our lobbying work.

The TUC has also continued to promote the social model of disability, particularly during Disability History Month, when we launched an online learning module on the topic.

4.7 Health, safety and regulation

During the year, the TUC has campaigned to ensure that the health, safety and welfare of workers is protected by strong union organisation and a network of health and safety reps with access to high-quality guidance and advice.

The response to coronavirus dominated our work, with the TUC producing resources for affiliates and health and safety reps on mental health, safer working, working from home and PPE, in line with resolution 33. In response to composite 11, we continued to call for Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics into work-related deaths to include suicide as well as other work-related fatalities currently not included. We also called for a legal responsibility to be put on employers to protect mental health, and developed new resources for union reps on organising around mental health.

The TUC produced further resources to support workplace activists. The weekly health and safety e-bulletin Risks was published throughout the year, alongside an intensive series of webinars focused on the response to coronavirus.

In the run-up to International Workers’ Memorial Day in April 2020, the TUC focused on campaigning for safety from coronavirus exposure in the workplace. We called for a public inquiry into government negligence on PPE, and remembered the lives of workers lost due to Covid-19 and other work-related injury and illness. Our work was informed by resolution 26. The Organise 2020 summit also featured several sessions on health and safety, including one on encouraging more women to take up the role of health and safety rep.

In line with resolution 66, we continued to work with affiliated unions on the impact of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, supporting demands for the removal of combustible cladding.

The TUC continued to work with the HSE during the year. We were represented on its board by Accord General Secretary Ged Nichols, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy Director of Employment Relations and Union Services (ERUS) Claire Sullivan and TUC Head of Organisation, Services and Skills Kevin Rowan. The TUC was on the board of the work and health programme, which this year has considered mental health as well as the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The TUC continued in the role of secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Health and Safety and the sub-group on asbestos, engaging with parliamentarians and sector organisations on a range of issues.

The TUC is represented on the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC) by Karen Mitchell (RMT), Doug Russell (Usdaw) and Daniel Shears (GMB). The three TUC nominees played an active role in the work of the Council. TUC nominees also sat on a range of other external bodies, including the Council for Work & Health. The TUC continues to work closely with the Hazards campaign, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, and other organisations in the health and safety field.

4.8 Skills

Over the past year the TUC has continued to campaign for greater investment in skills to support economic growth and help more workers achieve their full potential. While the impact of Brexit and automation remain a concern, the onset of the pandemic brought about a new scale of challenge for the economy and our skills system. In response, the TUC has put jobs and skills at the heart of its demands for government to deliver an ambitious policy package to address the economic fallout from Covid-19.

In recognition of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the job prospects of young people, these proposals include an education and training guarantee for everyone aged 25 and under, comprising an apprenticeship, a place at college or university, or other training options delivered as part of a new jobs guarantee programme. Our proposed skills package would also give everybody a new right to retrain, backed up by personal lifelong learning accounts. These would be partly funded by bringing forward the government’s commitment to invest £600m per annum in a new national skills fund from 2021.

General Council members and TUC staff are represented on a range of skills bodies. Kevin Rowan, head of organisation, services and skills at the TUC, is a member of the Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce.

4.9 Apprenticeships

The TUC has supported some recent apprenticeships reforms, especially measures designed to improve quality such as the regulations applying to off-the-job training. Despite this, 70 per cent of apprentices are still not receiving formal off-the-job training in line with the regulatory minimum, according to the latest government survey. Apprentices are also around ten times more likely to be underpaid than the average worker due to widespread contravention of the minimum wage, according to a new analysis by the Low Pay Commission (LPC). And wide-ranging research, including by the TUC, has pointed out that under-represented groups continue to face major barriers to accessing the best apprenticeships.

To tackle these challenges, the TUC has called for measures to strengthen enforcement of employment and training rights of apprentices, boost wage levels, improve equality of access and guarantee a minimum progression to a level 3 apprenticeship for all young people. The TUC submission to the last government review of the levy called for it to be flexed to allow employers to use their funds to provide high-quality pre-apprenticeship training programmes where appropriate.

The TUC also published an analysis showing that apprentices in many parts of the country are unfairly denied public transport travel discounts that are made available to all students. The report called on the government to deliver on a commitment it gave in 2017 to introduce a national travel discount for all apprentices.

Unionlearn has produced a range of resources to help unions negotiate with employers to boost the number of high-quality apprenticeships that are accessible to all, and to safeguard and sustain apprenticeships through the current crisis.

4.10 Adult skills

Throughout the year, the TUC highlighted key deficiencies in our adult skills system, especially very low investment levels. Government spending on adult skills has fallen by 47 per cent in the last decade, the volume of employer-led training is down by a staggering 60 per cent since the end of the 1990s, and employer investment in training per employee is half the EU average. According to a recent OECD report, the UK also lacks the national social partnership arrangements that underpin high-quality skill systems in many other countries.

A new report by the Industrial Strategy Council, Rising to the UK’s Skills Challenges, agreed with this analysis and the need for policymakers to tackle these deficiencies urgently. This report also highlights the key role unions play in boosting access to high-quality learning and training at work, including the vital contribution of unionlearn.

The TUC submission to the 2020 Budget called for specific new entitlements to boost training levels, including: a right to time off to learn; access to mid-life reviews; and a learning account for all workers. Throughout the year we continued to collaborate with the government and the CBI to oversee the design and development of the National Retraining Scheme, including supporting trialling of the online Get Help to Retrain service.

The TUC has also continued to call for measures to make basic digital qualifications free at the point of access, and has welcomed the rollout of the new basic digital skills entitlement later this year.

The recent devolution of the adult skills budget to parts of England has resulted in some benefits, including better alignment of provision to local needs and allowing more focus on disadvantaged groups. However, there have been some unintended consequences from a postcode-based skills funding system, which has introduced avoidable further barriers to participation for many learners.

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