ILO Director-General Guy Ryder speaking at the International Labour Conference, 30-05-2016. Photo © Crozet / Pouteau / Albouy (under creative commons)
UK government isolated at ILO on Trade Union Act
Not a single government spoke up in the UK government’s defence when the ILO Committee on the Application of Standards considered whether the Trade Union Act was out of line with ILO core labour standards last night in Geneva. Although several employer representatives – including the CBI’s Chris Syder – continued with their inaccurate and deplorable argument that the right to strike is not an ILO fundamental right, the debate was dominated by some great speeches by trade unionists around the world – including, notably, Zimbabwe!
The workers’ group leader, Marc Leemans from the Belgian CSC, started off the debate by arguing that the Trade Union Act was an unacceptable breach of the fundamental right to strike, in general and in detail. He reiterated the concerns expressed by the ILO Committee of Experts in March, and – like several trade union speakers – expressed concerns about the fact that an advanced economy was in such terrible company. As well as calling for the repeal of the Trade Union Act, he called on the government to abandon plans to allow agency workers to replace strikers, to allow electronic and secret workplace balloting over industrial action, and to remove transport and education from the 40% double ballot threshold.
The TUC representative on the Committee, NUT Assistant General Secretary Amanda Brown, had a new role last night. As a regular speaker at the annual meetings of the Committee, she is well used to defending trade union rights in other countries. This time, though, it was personal, as she laid into her own Government’s atrocious law. She concluded:
“This Act and its related provisions are a very serious interference with the rights of UK workers under Convention 87. It is unwanted, unnecessary, and disproportionate. It is causing immense damage at home and disgrace abroad. Chair, this Committee must send a strong signal that the UK Government must change course, repeal the Act, take no further such steps, but instead must discuss with social partners how to develop a legal framework that is fit for this century.”
There were speeches from German and Italian trade unionists, as well as from New Zealand and the International Transport Workers’ Federation. But the biggest applause of the debate went to George Nkiwane, President of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. He expressed his horror that a Zimbabwean had to speak up for British trade unionists for a change, but also that some of the features of the Trade Union Act put Britain on a par with the repressive regime in his own country. He said:
“We are shocked to see that the government of the UK now started to adopt the same strategies as the government of Zimbabwe in order to crush the voice of workers.
“When I look at the Trade Union Act I see provisions that we are very familiar with in Zimbabwe, provisions which have contributed to mass violence and economic downfall. … even though we have been operating under some of the provision recently adopted by the UK for many years now, this has not led to more jobs or economic security. In fact, we have one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.”
In the end, only one other government spoke apart from the UK, and that was the Russian government, who expressed concern that the UK was restricting trade union rights in this way. That’s hardly a badge of honour for the UK Conservatives.
The Committee is due to consider its conclusions on Thursday, and report to the full ILO Conference Plenary on Friday 10 June.
PS. In the interests of absolute disclosure, it was suggested later in the evening that other governments had offered to speak up on the UK government’s behalf, but the UK indicated they would prefer not. Maybe it was Qatar that offered support. Or maybe it was Zimbabwe…