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Monday 22nd
posted by Morning Star in Features

The International Labour Organisation has taken the government to task over its vicious plans to curb the trade union movement – but CAROLYN JONES doubts whether courtroom decisions will be enough to stop the Tories in their tracks

IT’S official. The Trade Union Bill currently being rushed through Parliament by the Tory government is in breach of international labour standards. So says the latest report by the ILO committee of experts.

For many this will come as no surprise. But now, in this latest ILO report, the British government is taken to task over proposals contained in the Trade Union Bill.

So what gives the ILO authority to comment on domestic laws? The right to strike is a fundamental right, embodied in the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966.

It is a fundamental right that has been protected by the ILO supervisory bodies for over 60 years (principally by the Committee on Freedom of Association since 1952 and the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations since 1959).

The decisions of these supervisory bodies have given rise to a body of principles on the right to strike, broadly shared by the international community and based on the general principles of freedom of association.

Perhaps the more pertinent questions to ask are what gives the Tories the right to so arrogantly flout international laws relating to trade unions?

And why is the government wasting time introducing yet further restrictions to a framework of law that is already acknowledged as the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world?

Despite the Bill and its impact assessment being criticised as “not fit for purpose,” the government is bulldozing ahead with this unpopular proposal.

This latest annual report from the ILO committee of experts begins by reminding the government of the committee’s previous request for Britain to “carry out a review … of the issues raised by various workers’ organisations … relating to the exercise and regulations of industrial action.”

The committee goes on to note that while the government asked Bruce Carr to undertake a review, the terms of reference of that review were restricted to “limited questions of alleged use of extreme tactics in industrial disputes and the effectiveness of the existing legal framework for preventing inappropriate or intimidatory actions in such disputes.”

The committee of experts went on to point out that “the review was not charged to examine the various matters that had been raised by the workers’ organisations in the country over recent years.”

Nevertheless, as the committee notes, the result of the “limited review” was used as a basis for proposals contained in the Trade Union Bill, proposals which the ILO committee went on to judge as undermining a number of ILO Conventions including Convention 87 (on the fundamental right of Freedom of Association and Protection of Right to Organise), and Convention 151 (on Labour Relations in Public Services).

The most serious complaints raised by the ILO committee of experts relate to:
- The impact of the 40 per cent threshold which the committee noted “would constitute an obstacle to the right of workers’ organisations to carry out their activities without interference.”
- The inclusion of education and transport sectors as “important services” covered by the additional 40 per cent threshold, which the committee argued went beyond the ILO’s definition of essential services. The committee warned that the threshold “is likely to severely impede the right of these workers and their organisations to organise their activities in furtherance and defence of their occupational interests without interference.”
- The restrictive nature of postal ballots and the need to modernise the system
- The use of agency workers as striker replacements
- The removal of check-off and facility procedures in the public sector
- The proposals to invalidate existing collective agreements relating to facility time and check-off arrangements
- The requirement to opt into the political fund, within a limited time period
- The further restrictions on picketing
- The proposals to increase the powers of the certification officer.

The committee has asked the government to review these matters with the social partners with a view to modifying the Bill.

It also demanded that the government reply in detail before the end of 2016 to the committee of experts’ comments and concerns.

Don’t hold your breath! As the initial comments of the committee’s report suggest, the government does not have a good track record of either discussing matters with social partners or modifying its ideologically driven proposals.

No doubt these same issues, together with previous complaints by trade unions, will be considered once again by the committee of experts in its next annual report, by which time the Trade Union Bill is likely to have become an Act, albeit with the possibility of some minor concessions.

This is one reason why the Institute of Employment Rights (IER) has consistently argued that this Bill will not be defeated in court rooms or lecture theatres but by political and industrial action.

And despite the government’s obvious arrogant attitude towards the ILO and the principles of international law, the now infamous leaked “Dear Oliver and Chris” letter from Nick Boles suggests the government is rattled.

In that letter, marked “sensitive,” the Minister of State for Business suggested a number of concessions be considered to avoid the probability of the House of Lords defeating “flagship” parts of the Trade Union Bill.

As NUT general secretary Christine Blower said recently at an IER rally: “Such concessions, though welcome, do not go nearly far enough to remove the inherent dangers in the Bill.”

Kill the Bill — derail the Act must remain our attitude and our strategy.

An earlier ILO report on the principle of the right to strike noted: “The full importance of the ILO principles on the right to strike emerges when one realises the extent to which substantial restrictions on fundamental trade union rights undermine not only the balance of labour relations and the existence of a counterbalance to the power of the state in the economy, but also reduce expectations of any improvement in conditions of employment and in the standard of living within civil society.”

As assistant general secretary of Unite Steve Turner said at our recent rally against the Trade Union Bill, we cannot allow that to happen — not on our watch.

  • Carolyn Jones is director of the Institute of Employment Rights.