We keep hearing a lot of things about ‘workers’ rights’ from Jeremy Corbyn. In respect of Brexit, Corbyn says we need to protect the rights of employees because they could be trashed in the swamp of deregulation. His shadow chancellor John McDonnell says the next Labour government will immediately bring in a national minimum wage of £10 an hour. All this sounds marvellous. But is it?
I wonder what these workers’ rights actually are? Something like 23% of workers belong to a trade union. The rest do what they are told by their employers. They have literally no say in their jobs, their pay, their conditions. Employers will always pay the least they can get away with paying. Workers who ask for a bit more will be told, in one way or another, to like it or lump it. There are plenty of other employers out there.
Workers’ rights are minimal. They have a minimum wage, they are allowed paid breaks, they are allowed paid holidays. For millions of people, the bare minimum is all they will ever get. But even many employers that are unionised are not generous. Aside from the highly unionised manufacturers, unions have very limited power. They can stop someone being illegally sacked, but like many employees, they can do little when the boss says you aren’t having a pay rise. So, who is Corbyn talking about when he refers to the protection of workers’ rights? It’s the highly unionised sectors, where his paymasters like Len McCluskey pull many strings. For most other workers, Corbyn’s words are meaningless.
The minimum wage, introduced by Tony Blair’s New Labour, has taken many people out of poverty. It’s been a huge success. However, Labour has not been in power for almost a decade now and wages for working people have not recovered to the level they were at before the worldwide financial crash of 2008. We are in a different place. John McDonnell talks about increasing the minimum wage to £10 an hour, but then what? On a 37 hour week, a tenner an hour, represents a gross, pre tax, figure of £370 a week. Please tell me how that addresses anything other than putting bread on the table. I know that eating is quite important to living a normal life but £370 a week will not put someone on the property ladder, pay for childcare, allow the lower orders to enjoy a decent holiday. These are not policies: they are slogans.
There is no plan from anyone, certainly not the government, to address the whole issue of low pay. It is much more than increasing the minimum wage. It is about ripping up the rules about how we live our lives.
The kind of Brexit preferred by the elite low tax, small state little Englanders who now run our country will indeed trash the rights of the better off unionised work force and they will join the rest of us in having no influence in the workplace. That’s what Corbyn and the comrades are really worried about, not the poor women and men at the bottom of the food chain who already have little to lose and certainly nothing to gain.
Big ideas are what we need. Sadly, the return of a 1980s version of Labour means there are virtually no ideas at all.