From the TUC

Unions are for Life not just for Christmas

16 Dec 2009, By

The advert said that “seasonal help was needed. Applicants need to be hard working, good with children (CRB check required) and animals, experience in goods handling, packaging and distribution a necessity, HGV licence desirable. Willing to work flexibly. We are an equal opportunities employer.”

Nicholas (not his real name) should have been more cautious of the words ‘willing to work flexibly’. He was told on day one that it was a service delivery orientated organisation with a high public reputation that needed to be maintained at all costs (sounds familiar?). Any failure to maintain this standard, for whatever reason, would result in dismissal.

He was thrown in at the deep-end with little or no instruction, working with elves many of whom were on work experience or working the holiday period for pocket money. Some had not long left the Iceland Elf School (Elfsted report due in 2010)[i]. Of course, the employer was vehemently anti-union and only the week before 20 fairies had been sacked for organising a work to rule to seek parity with the gnomes. They had been replaced by undocumented workers.

Research shows the high level of accidents at work that happen to young people and those starting at the workplace for the first time, particularly those who receive little or no relevant training or induction in the workplace.[ii] They are also subject to bullying and harassment by the employer and sometimes other workers. If the grotto workers had been in a union, the union could have ensured that they were all treated fairly from the start. It was unions that fought for the introduction of the minimum wage and continue to fight for better standards for young people at work.

Nick and the elves were handling all manner of goods which had to be loaded into open wagons which had not been designed for modern working conditions, nor indeed for the extremes of weather conditions that he had to face in making his deliveries. A union would have been able to help Nick and the elves fight for their rights to use the law to protect themselves from an employer that cared little for them or their working conditions. Unions take on rogue employers and make sure they stay within the law.[iii] Where union safety reps and safety committees are in place, they cut accident rates by over 50% compared to workplaces with no union presence.[iv]

Nick found that without someone to stand up with him to get his rights he was working all hours, with only a reindeer with a bright red nose to light his way across dangerous roof tops. He wasn’t allowed a break and had to rely on food left out for him by caring clients and he became dependent on alcohol, particularly sherry, which gave him but temporary relief from the cold.

Unions negotiate with employers for a better work life balance. Home life is important and a tired worker is no good at home and dangerous at work. Unions have campaigned to win a limit on the working week, for breaks during the day and for statutory holiday entitlement. Unions are now working with other campaign groups for an additional Bank Holiday.

As a result of his experiences, and with the help of a union organiser, Nick got the union into Santa’s Grotto and now works more reasonable hours, with support from additional Grotto workers, has suitable breaks and works with a re-designed sleigh which now accommodates, in safety, the large numbers of packages it has to carry and has a modern halogen power beam lantern to guide his way across the roof tops. But don’t worry the reindeer, Rudolph, still leads the way but is now, at the union’s instigation, monitored by the RSPCA to make sure his rights are protected.

For more information about the benefits a union can bring to the workplace go to ‘The Union Advantage’ at www.tuc.org.uk/organisation/tuc-17340-f0.cfm .  To find out more about your rights at work and which union is best for you, go to www.worksmart.org.uk/ .


[i] Further information about the Icelandic Elf School can be found at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_Elf_School

[ii] Health and Safety Executive statistics show that in 2007/8 140.6 in 100,000 16-19 year olds were injured compared to 134.2 of 25 – 34 year olds. The HSE has produced guidance for employers on protecting young people at work and those on work experience.

[iii] As a result of unfair treatment by employers, unions in 2004, won an estimated £16.4 million in compensation for their members at Employment Appeal tribunals. In 2007 unions won a record £330m in compensation for members through legal action.

[iv] Reilly, Paci and Holl ‘unions, safety committee and workplace injuries’ BJIR Vol.33, 1995.