A government serious about industry, growth and a northern powerhouse would work with unions rather than undermine them, writes GRAHAME MORRIS
THE Prime Minister is unsurprisingly quiet about the collapse of retailer British Home Stores (BHS). A staple of our high street for nearly 90 years, the company has suffered in recent years from a lack of investment and successive owners taking money out of the business.
The wealth creators — those who serve customers day in, day out — have been left with an uncertain future. Their jobs, all 11,000, are in limbo as the administrators seek a new buyer, and questions are now being asked about who is responsible for the £571 million deficit in the BHS pension fund.
However, in a week of corporate failure and mismanagement, the burning issue is the Trade Union Bill. As it is workers who will bear the brunt of BHS’s collapse, the UK Corporate Governance code should be examined and reviewed to increase workers’ protection.
In an era of short-term gain, I believe there are few groups which could have a more long-term view and approach to business than the employees whose living depends upon their job.
I support a more collaborative approach between businesses and employees and believe Britain should be seeking to replicate best practice from abroad, such as in Germany where workers in larger companies are guaranteed places in the boardroom.
The Trade Union Bill does not examine ways in which we can improve industrial relations, or explore how a constructive approach can help not only employees but businesses too. There are few better examples than Nissan, in my own region, whose constructive unionised workforces work with management and have created the most productive car plant in Europe.
This is the example we should be seeking to replicate across the country to strengthen our economy. However, the government has a concept of industrial relations which is captured in the newsreels of yesteryear rather than in modern Britain.
The number of days lost per year to strikes is down 90 percent compared to the 1980s, with the average trade union member taking strike action once every 15 years.
The government is tackling a nonexistent crisis.
Britain already has the most restrictive labour laws of any advanced democracy, and further limiting the civil, human and political rights of trade unionists will not only weaken our economy, but strengthen the hand of businesses with the worst employment practices.
The government’s distorted view of industrial relations is not universally recognised. In an open letter, council leaders in the so-called northern powerhouse highlight the importance of good employment relations in the delivery of high-quality public services.
In contrast to the combative approach of Tory Ministers, they believe that working in partnership with communities and the workforce is vital to improving public services and growing local economies.
It’s clear why the government wants to restrict the activities of trade unions, and close down their opposition to its policies.
George Osborne’s austerity trap is failing to address the challenges we face, insecurity at work through stagnating wages and the abuse of zero-hours contracts, a housing market few can afford which is trapping families in poverty through excessive fees and rents, and underinvestment in our public services and infrastructure.
The rhetoric of the northern powerhouse looks good on paper, but it is meaningless when we see key strategic industry like steel sacrificed on Teesside, disproportionate cuts to council funding in the north resulting in thousands of job losses and the rolling back of public services, or infrastructure spending skewed towards London and the south-east, which will reap the benefits of airport expansion, HS2 and Crossrail.
The government must shake off the shackles of the past and stop viewing unions as the enemy within. A successful economy will require collaborative and constructive industrial relations, backed by a government which recognises the long-term value to the economy of investment in our public services and infrastructure.
Unions have an important role to play in the success of our economy, but the government is holding them back for little more than narrow, short-term political ideology.