Congress 2012: Organising Vulnerable Workers
Free marketeers like to sing the praises of “risk taking entrepreneurs”. Willingness to take risks is held up as a virtue. But in reality the real risks in society are taken not by entrepreneurs but by workers, and not by choice but by necessity.
BECTU’s motion on Vulnerable Workers at this year’s TUC was about the current trend for employers to offload risk onto workers, by redefining the employment relationship itself. We see it in the 1.4 million agency workers in this country; the 1.25 million freelance workers; and unknown numbers of casual employees, unpaid interns and bogus “volunteers”. And at extreme, we have gang-masters operating outside the law.
This trend is no secret. In fact it’s so visible that some people want to give it a new name, referring to precarious workers or the “precariat”. I understand the urge but there is a danger that if we use this language, we will wall off vulnerable workers from the wider working class, and wall off their problems from the problems of the wider labour movement. Let’s not invent new divisions. When the ground-rules of employment itself are under attack, it’s a problem for all of us.
My union BECTU organises in industries – broadcasting, entertainment, film, theatres – where these patterns of work are very familiar. They follow from the episodic nature of film projects, or TV series, or theatre productions. As a union we aim to put realistic arrangements and agreements in place which take this into account but still allow our members to pursue their careers.
But over the past few years we have seen new trends which actively undermine workers’ careers. The rise of the unpaid internship is the best example. The Government’s own enquiry found that unpaid internships undermine social mobility. In many white-collar sectors they have effectively replaced paid entry-level positions. This is bad for the young people who get the internships, maybe bankrolled by parents, because they’re being ripped off. But it’s even worse for working class kids who don’t have affluent parents, and can’t afford to work without pay, and are completely excluded. And it makes a nonsense of all the efforts – including trade unions’ efforts – to improve skills across society, when talented, creative, ambitious young people from working class backgrounds are excluded from whole sectors before their careers are even started.
Individual unions and the TUC have done some good work in his area in recent years. The Agency Worker Regulations are a step forward. My own union, the NUJ and others have won important legal cases for unpaid interns. And we win little victories all the time against employers who seem to think that freelance workers have no rights at all.
Our organising motion to Congress said that it’s time to take a new step, to pull together all these different abuses, all this transfer of risk and uncertainty from employers to workers, under the umbrella of a new united campaign on behalf of Britain’s millions of vulnerable workers.