Trade Union Group of Labour MPs

London, 26/11/2007

To be checked against delivery

Chairman, it is nice to be back. When I was at the TUC, I always appreciated the support we received from this group – support which had to be expressed discreetly and carefully even then, if the enemies of the Labour Government were not to be able capitalise on internal differences in the Party.

I guess the same is even more true and necessary in today’s circumstances. But trade union work goes on and I have come with a request. And my request is that you help us on two points – the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Temporary Agency Workers Directive. The second may be more familiar to you than the first after the debates on Paul Farrelly’s Private Members’ Bill but the first is important and needs your attention.

Starting with Temporary Agency Workers Directive, this will be considered at a meeting of the Social Affairs Council in early December. And on present form it will be blocked by the UK Government.

The Government is committed to act on temporary agencies under the terms of the Warwick agreement, yet it has led opposition to a European level initiative for years. The context is that since 1997 the Government has set its face against any new social legislation not acceptable to the CBI. There was one interruption – the Information and Consultation Directive in 2001 but on all other issues, the alliance with the CBI has been strong.
No wonder Europe has been becoming more unpopular with Social Europe being put in deep freeze.

There are two main points. The ETUC has been arguing that temporary agency workers should be treated not less favourably as regards pay from day 1 which is the position in many EU countries unless there are collective agreements to the contrary.

The Commission’s position, which we could probably live with is a qualifying period of 6 weeks to qualify for equal pay, although exceptions to this could be negotiated with an independent trade union. So the text of the Directive does two things.
- gives agency workers equality on pay after 6 weeks; and
- encourages collective bargaining.

As I have said this new text is likely to be blocked with the UK Government arguing that it is not ready to accept these points on 6 weeks and collective bargaining.

Already part time workers and fixed term workers are entitled to equal conditions. The big gap in the UK and elsewhere is agency workers. Agencies are the ones arranging the large scale migration. And agencies are central to many employers’ aiming to get away from steady contracts of employment. Some agencies are reputable, the worst are people traffickers. But in many cases – except in the professions and in some skilled trades – agency workers are getting a second class deal, and your – our Government – is defending that, the indefensible.

So talk to Ministers about this. Let them know how you feel, and let’s get a more positive approach than was shown to the Farrelly Bill and is being shown in Brussels.

The other issue is less well understood. The Charter of Fundamental Rights is designed to emphasise that all members of the EU respect a range of democratic rights and freedoms. It is part of the EU’s mission to spread democracy including trade unionism in former fascist and communist countries but it would also be relevant to an applicant country like Turkey.

So far that mission to spread democracy as well as prosperity has been the EU’s crowning success. Look at countries like Spain and the Czech Republic. Look at the reforms in Turkey. All encouraged by the process of EU membership or prospective membership.

Currently the Charter of Fundamental Rights has a declaratory effect only on member states. The new Reform Treaty will make it legally binding on them and it includes the right to bargain and strike. It is more precise on these matters than UN or Council of Europe declarations.

The ETUC has had a long – standing campaign to get this Charter to be binding on member states. We succeeded in the old EU Constitutional Treaty – the one rejected in France and the Netherlands - although the UK added strong notes to add that strikes were a national, not European competence. These were the original red line.

And we succeeded, just, in keeping its legally binding nature in the EU Reform Treaty, although the text is not in this Treaty. The UK added its protocol, or as I call it an opt out for what’s it is – to make clear, and let me put it bluntly that the Thatcher/Tebbit laws on strikes cannot be disturbed by the European Court of Justice. The CBI asked for this belt and braces approach and obtained the Government’s support.

So with workers’ pay decreasing as a share of GDP and the share of profits rising, with the ever more dominant specultative, financial capitalism, with the problems of globalisation pressing hard on semi and unskilled workers, we have the bizarre situation of the Government supporting big business against unions on two important questions.

The trade union issue is not about a referendum which is a device to stop Europe. But, instead, the need for measures in this case from Europe to better help workers and unions help the most vulnerable in our society.
If these measures were adopted rather than blocked, then maybe Europe might begin to recover the popularity on the Left that it had in the Delors’ era.