Sarah Collins argues for using Brexit to sort out longstanding ailments on wages and conditions
The TUC and many others are keen to highlight the potential impact that Brexit will have on workers’ rights, or the erosion thereof. In its August online briefing, the TUC noted: ‘right now, EU law protects equal pay for equal value work, pay and conditions for outsourced workers, and equal treatment for people in insecure jobs. That means bosses can’t treat anyone like a second-class citizen – including agency, part time and temporary staff. And EU law also ensures workers have the right to a voice at work’. In the same month, as the TUC published a report called Ending the Undercutters’ Charter showing agency workers are being treated inequitably, there is a massive equal pay dispute at Glasgow City Council, and the poor conditions of hospitality and tourism workers have been consistently exposed by the Better than Zero campaign, Unite and BFAWU.
Regardless of whether Brexit will be a disaster for workers’ rights in Scotland, the fact is that many workers already face adversity day-in and day-out – from low wages to insecure contracts and poor and overpriced accommodation. We have an understanding of what sectors migrant workers work in, and we know the terms and conditions of workers across Scotland that are suffering most from lack of empowerment in enforcing their basic rights in these sectors. What we need is to look at how Brexit can be used to enact a strategy which promotes all workers’ class interests in these sectors.
There are an estimated 150,000 EU nationals in employment in Scotland, representing nearly 6% of the workforce in employment in Scotland. For EU nationals, similar to British nationals and non EU nationals, the highest proportion are employed in distribution, hotels and restaurants; public administration, education and health; and banking, finance and insurance. Around two-thirds of all EU nationals in employment in Scotland work in these three industry sectors. However, a Scottish Government report identifies the tourism and hospitality sector as the one that would be particularly hard hit by restrictions on immigration into lower-skilled work.
The two prominent options open to the Government for attracting migrant workers in are an expanded youth mobility scheme, and a work-permit system that channels workers into specific, low-wage jobs. Already in sectors like tourism, EU nationals are not necessarily paid less per hour than British counterparts, but the terms and conditions under which they are expected to work mean that many British workers do not undertake these jobs. The STUC recently reported on treatment of workers at a hotel on Skye staffed predominantly by EU nationals, where workers sleep in staff bunks, which are scarce, or in makeshift pods and caravans. For this, they pay the employer £50 per week. Workers have little guarantee about the length of their stay and therefore, will often accept whatever they are given, and will often be denied paid holidays, sickness leave, and other rights that are written in statute, but overlooked in situ. As the Director of the Migration Observatory has said: ‘if workers can’t leave a bad job, there’s more responsibility on government to prevent exploitation. In theory this should be possible with careful monitoring and oversight, but enforcing labour standards is not an area where the UK has the best track record.’
Instead, in agriculture, the influence of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board is more evident. Generally, there is a standard entry level minimum wage, with some more experienced workers earning more than double this rate. As the industry effectively still works on piece rate (i.e. per kilo/bunch/tray harvested) or a system of bonuses, the statutory minimum wage effectively sets the floor, with experienced workers capable of earning considerably higher hourly wage rates. A similar collective bargaining body should be set up for hospitality and tourism, particularly if young people are going to be encouraged to work in Scotland from other EU countries.
EU, or indeed British or Scots, law is not a panacea for putting workers, migrant or otherwise, at the forefront of the industrial and labour struggle. Whilst the floor of workers’ rights should be defended, it is clear from the daily fight to empower workers to challenge their employment conditions that despite laws on minimum wage, maximum working hours or holiday pay, employers all over the country are flouting these laws even prior to Brexit. As such, focusing on Brexit as the cause of workers’ rights erosion masks the underlying and more pervasive issues of enforcing workers’ rights in an employer’s world. Instead, ensuring a robust collective bargaining framework, particularly in the context of Brexit, is the best way to shore up all workers’ rights and increase wages in characteristically low wage and low skill sectors.
Sarah Collins is a policy officer at the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC)