‘Completely Unjustifiable” : Union Learning Fund to be scrapped

Kevin Rowan: “The decision was completely out of the blue and is completely unjustifiable”.

A week after Boris Johnson announced plans for an ‘adult skills revolution’, dubbed the ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’ which contained little in the way of  detail, skills and appears to be website and counselling the much praised Union Learning Fund is to be scrapped by the Government. Unions and employers are expressing their concern and dismay at the decision.

The ULF fund, which is worth around £11 million a year, was established in 1988 and through the work of trade unions and union learning representatives, has delivered a range of learning and training programmes, including schemes to improve maths, English and digital skills, growing apprenticeship provision and seeking solutions to skills shortages.

It currently supports 250,000 workers a year to access learning.

According to a report published by Union Learn and the Department for Education in 2018-19, every £1 invested in the fund resulted in a total economic return of £12.30.

The TUC has described the decision coming completely out of the blue and is, completely unjustifiable.

Kevin Rowan, Head of the TUC’s Organising, Services and Learning Department adds: “It can be no reflection on the performance of union-led projects or the Union Learn programmes. Our delivery has continued to be exemplary and we have continued to receive very positive feedback from officials in the Department for Education, among others. There is clearly a huge skills challenge ahead and Union Learn and our trade unions remain extremely well placed to respond to that challenge.”

Bob Harrison, chair of governors at Northern College, was involved in the setting up of the fund said: “The decision by the skills minister to cease funding the work of tens of thousands of union learning representatives who promote lifelong learning and training in the workplace is short-sighted and hypocritical, just a few days after appearing before the [Commons] Education Select Committee where she announced her commitment to the skills guarantee, adult skills and lifelong learning”

A TUC spokesperson said: “The TUC is seeking urgent meetings with ministers about Unionlearn funding.  Unionlearn provides learning and skills opportunities to a quarter of a million working people each year. The Prime Minister has been clear on the importance of skills to rebuilding the economy. Unionlearn should be recognised by ministers as a valuable national asset, with particular importance now for the nation’s plans to build back better.”

University and College Union general secretary Dr. Jo Grady said that the decision was directly at odds with the prime minister’s commitment last week. ‘The fund’s work improves employee and employer relationships and identifies training for people unlikely to find it through more traditional routes. Unions have a vital role to play in developing workforce training and we hope ministers and officials will recognise that as they assess the fund’s many benefits.

“Education, and access to training, will be central to our national recovery effort and axing such an important and well-established resource makes little sense. This would also represent another funding cut for further education, as much of the training is delivered in our further education colleges.’

 

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India: Government Passes Codes For Protection Of Employers

By Gautam Mody, General Secretary, New Trade Union Initiative
September 25th, 2020

In a matter of three or four hours of parliamentary time, labour rights won by workers over a century and a half were wiped away and replaced by the Codes on Industrial Relations, on Social Security and on Occupational Health, Safety and Working Conditions. The BJP’s ‘maximum governance’ comes with a brutality that turns over labour rights entirely in favour of capital. A day before this the BJP ran through parliament new laws that change the course of pricing and markets for farm produce placing income and livelihood of the entire peasantry at risk.

For the past six years trade unions have stressed that the government has refused all discussion on labour law ‘reform’. While introducing the bills the Labour Minister claimed that government had accepted 80 per cent of the electronic suggestions and 85 per cent of the recommendations made by the parliamentary committee. No one can tell what recommendations government accepted, but it clearly rejected the recommendations of the standing committee on the definition of workers and employees, on closure and retrenchment, on lowering standards for health and safety, on the lack of protection for fixed term contract employees, on inadequate protection for workers against disciplinary rules along with the sheer scale of delegated legislation and violation of principles of separation of powers between the centre and the states.

Codes to Protect Employers

The BJP promised to ‘consolidate’ 44 allegedly out dated, unwieldy and contradictory laws into four codes through ‘…amalgamating, simplifying and rationalising the relevant provisions’ of law and codify them by including case law derived from judicial decisions of courts. Many critical labour rights have been won through long legal battles by unions over time, a majority of which have been excluded from this process of ‘codification’. On the basic question of what is an ‘industry’, the Supreme Court settled through its 1979 ruling that it must be defined by the nature of work and not just by the existence of the profit motive. Further, both the Andhra Pradesh and Madras High Courts ruled in 1982 that tribunal awards cannot be altered by government. Both these critical advancements find no mention in the codes.

Definitional Smokescreen

Multiple definitions of worker and employee in the Codes have created more ambiguity than earlier and will now allow employers to use this ambiguity to deny workers their already limited rights. The Codes expressedly exclude the huge numbers of agricultural workers, ‘honorarium’ and domestic workers, the overwhelming majority of who are women, from the definition of a worker. At the other end, a wide definition of ‘manager’ will allow employers to classify a large number of workers in this category. The definition of ‘employer’ now includes contractors and sub-contractors effectively absolving the principal employer of all responsibility. The government, of course believes that the contract labour system will be replaced by fixed term contracts (FTC), who are not provided any safeguards on period of contract, its renewal and any possibility for regularisation. Hence the established judicial premise that a perennial task must command a permanent job is now a renewed challenge.

The threshold for most critical health and safety provisions will now only be applicable in establishments with 300+ employees. The same threshold now applies for introduction of standing orders, for lay off, retrenchment and closure, shrinking the number of establishments where there will be jobs protected by law.

Most significantly, the entire body of the four codes can effectively be set aside at the will of the executive in ‘public interest’. So we could have a situation that a coal mine or petroleum refinery here or a sea port or car manufacturing factory there can be made completely free from even the few rights that are left in ‘public interest’.

Rights replaced by dole

The most significant expectation of people at large and the promise of the BJP government has been universal social security. The code has settled this through a discriminatory two tier system that divides ‘employees’ and ‘unorganised workers’ through ‘rights conferred on them and schemes framed, under this Code’ respectively. In effect, a very small number of regular employees whose workplaces will qualify as an establishment will have the right to social security (PF, ESI, gratuity and maternity benefit) as guaranteed in the past, and the remaining large section of the working population will have to squabble over the benefits given out under the various budget constrained ‘schemes’ of a ‘generous’ government. These schemes shall be made up by the executive and will neither be disbursed from legislatively protected funds nor be justiciable in a court of law.

Trade Unions as Centres of Resistance

The future course of the country’s working class will be determined critically by our response to the new codes, most of all on the attack on trade union rights – on registration, on membership, on union recognition, and on the right to strike. As elsewhere in the world, trade union rights in our country too were won through sustained militant hard fought battles with unparalleled sacrifice. Trade union rights have always been won by challenging the laws of private property and profit. These are not rights we shall give up.

Of course, we know that the BJP has carefully chosen this time to launch what it thinks is its final attack on the working class – a time when vast numbers of working people have been without work and wage for almost six months as a result of the draconian lockdown. This is not just an attack on working people, it is an attack that hits at the very core of democratic rights on our right to free association, on our rights to defend our rights, on our rights to dissent, speak up and strike when our rights are under attack. Whether it is the right to universal social security, or a fair and just minimum wage, or a safe workplace or a secure job: none of it can be won and secured without trade union rights. Hence our struggle must go forward in defending, retaining and sustaining our trade union rights. And it is with this resolve that we must and we will go forward in a struggle that is united, democratic and militant.

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Right Wing Attack On Aussie MUA and Trade Union Freedom

By Barry Camfield

Amazing isn’t it? Governments and employers across the planet only tolerate unions whilst union workers are compliant and not seriously engaged in industrial action or fighting for better pay, terms and conditions.

So we learn that Aussie prime minister Scott Morrison from the right wing Australian Liberal Party is threatening all sorts of retribution and ravings against a trade union engaged in a legitimate industrial dispute. The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) is fighting for a decent pay rise with the notorious Patrick Terminals, who have reacted hysterically to the negotiating position of the MUA.

Initially seeking a 6% pay rise, the MUA has reduced its claim to a 2.5% pay rise for three years. Nothing special there, for example public sector nurses in South Australia won a 2% pay rise this year. So what’s the big deal?

After all, it is a dispute between a workforce and their employer, legal in Aussie terms under the Enterprise Bargaining arrangements. The Fair Work Commission is there to ensure that any agreement meets at least the Modern Award minimums and that bargaining is conducted “in good faith”. All good there then, as this is legitimate bargaining and the union side has moved its claim substantially.

But no, Morrison calls the pay claim “extortionate” and threatens the union with Federal intervention, refusing to rule out the use of the military to intervene. Donald Trump may not be alone it seems in setting the army against the very people it is supposed to serve and protect.

But this is an industrial dispute which requires a freely negotiated settlement. 2.5% as “extortion? Back in the 1970’s when inflation was high in the UK, I recall a food company in West London engaged in negotiations with the TGWU when the company offered a 22% pay increase, which was promptly rejected by the T&G as “insulting”! Agreement was eventually reached and no bayonets appeared.

So why war over 2.5%? This is all about the unregulated free market dominating worker and union freedom, stopping unions from being effective and the bitter anti-union face of ScoMo and his party bursting through the pretence of decency and respect for unions. Such threats are in contravention of ILO Convention 89, which guarantees Freedom of Association. (and by implication the right to strike.

As one ILO expert said, “Freedom of Association without the right to strike is ‘meaningless’”.) Let’s support the MUA in their battle for a decent pay rise, and renew the fight for genuine trade union Freedom around the world.

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Workers’ rights in globalised industry – how can we protect them?

Valter Sanches, General Secretary of IndustriALL Global Union

Over the summer the Morning Star reported on a new study showing that major fashion brands were complicit in union-busting by third world suppliers in the garment industry. Morning Star editor Ben Chacko spoke to IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches to find out what trade unions can do to tackle abuses stretching across international supply chains

From the Morning Star September 15th

The Covid-19 crisis and the lockdowns imposed as a result hit the garment industry hard, causing order cancellations and job losses in producer countries.

What can trade unions do to press brands to shield suppliers from the risk of a sudden loss of income that they pass onto their workers?

“This problem emerged early in the pandemic. In April many brands endorsed a call to action, a tripartite initiative led by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) with a commitment by brands to pay for finished goods and goods in production.

“Brands that haven’t endorsed the call should be pressed to do so,” Sanchez says.

“But one of the main issues for the sector is that it lacks a sectoral approach to industrial relations. Sector-wide collective bargaining is rare, which means hundreds of unions negotiating with thousands of employers.

“A rare exception is South Africa, where the textile and garment union (SACTWU) has a long tradition of nationwide collective bargaining and won a full pay guarantee by working out a deal with the employer body and the government. This was possible because of tripartite bargaining.”

Sanches says IndustriALL has worked long-term with the ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation) initiative, which seeks to secure “agreement between global brands and retailers and trade unions to transform the garment, textile and footwear industry and achieve living wages for workers through collective bargaining.”

“We use the commitments brands have made through global framework agreements, the call to action, ACT and other initiatives to hold them accountable.

“When our affiliates in countries like Cambodia, Bangladesh and Myanmar raise issues, we bring the parties together in an attempt to find a resolution, with many cases solved.

“Our executive committee approved in June the need for a broader global campaign targeting the bad payers in the sector.

“We have the support from UNI Global Unions that will join us on that and we’ll certainly count on the support from various NGOs.”

These approaches involve persuading brands to come on board. Yet Human Rights Watch says that “brand approaches to sourcing and purchasing are not merely a threat to a factory’s financial bottom line.

“They incentivise suppliers to engage in abusive labour practices … this means that brand practices in these areas directly undercut their own efforts to insist on rights-respecting working conditions across their supply chains” (because brands are always looking for faster, cheaper supplies).

Sanches agrees that “in general the requirement to maximise value for shareholders conflicts with commitments to corporate social responsibility. Companies are all bound by the same market forces, and this can reward bad actors with a competitive advantage.

“The buyer-supplier relationship is very complex. It also lets the manufacturers off the hook. While many are small manufacturers, there are others that are large multinationals, and sometimes they attack workers’ rights or try to break unions despite an explicit commitment from a brand to freedom of association.

“The complex and opaque supply chain is the bigger problem, as it allows bad actors to be hidden by obscurity.

“One key part of IndustriALL’s work is to develop trade union networks at key multinational manufacturers, and we are currently working on a trade union network at the British multinational COATS.

“Reforming brands’ purchasing practices are an important part of the work, but the entire sector needs to be overhauled. This is what we are doing with the ACT initiative.
“ACT is building tripartite (unions, employer body and government) sector-wide collective bargaining in supplier countries, supported by brands and global unions.

“For instance, ACT brands pledge to maintain a certain level of production in a country and not leave to seek cheaper factories to avoid a collectively bargained wage rise.”

But the report Union-Busting and Unfair Dismissals: Garment Workers during Covid-19 by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre gathered evidence that trade union organisers and members were deliberately targeted in mass layoffs to break unions in many garment factories.

“There has been a definite increase in this behaviour from employers since the beginning of the pandemic. When we are notified by an affiliate about violations, we first demand that the owner of the supplier factory take immediate action to enter into negotiation with the affected trade union.

“If no remedy is achieved, we demand that brands sourcing from the supplier immediately take action with their supplier to ensure that workers’ rights are upheld.

“In many cases, we bring the parties together (local trade union, brands, and supplier) to the negotiation table to resolve the violation. For instance, our affiliate in Myanmar was recently able to win the reinstatement of workers through this approach.”

The report also suggests there is a big disparity between companies’ claims to respect labour rights and their record of ensuring these rights are respected, including with companies ignoring agreements they have signed with trade unions. Is this IndustriALL’s experience?

“Generally the commitment to respect labour rights is made by the brands, who require their suppliers to do the same. Again, the problem is supply chain complexity. Global brands try to keep costs down, and suppliers try to cut corners on wages and safety.

“But generally brands try to prevent this. However, they source huge quantities of clothing from producers, who often subcontract. Labour violations are frequent, but difficult for anyone to monitor because of the scale of the industry.

“The best system for monitoring labour violations is through independent trade unions, rather than relying on brands policing their suppliers. When our unions raise violations they are not able to solve on the ground, we bring them to the brands for resolution.”

The pandemic has also been used by governments to attack workers’ rights. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) says that a number of Indian states — Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat — have suspended labour law for periods of up to 1,000 days using Covid-19 as an excuse, saying that waiving employer responsibilities on pay, ventilation and other matters will encourage employment when mass unemployment is a risk.

“The suspension of labour laws is true and worrying. In India, both the central government as well as state governments can make laws on labour issues.

“We have reports of states increasing the threshold of workers for applicability of all labour laws. For example, the application of the Contract Labour Abolition and Regulation Act is now for establishments employing more than 50 workers (instead of 20 workers) in the States of Gujarat, Karnataka, Tripura and a couple more.

“The law on working hours has been changed in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Tripura from eight to 12 hours.

“Some states such as Karnataka, Goa, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar have introduced fixed-term-employment. Under the Employment (Standing Orders) Act, a worker who had completed 240 days of continuous work (with a weekly day off) was deemed to be permanent. Now that there is FTE, workers have lost that.

“We have been supporting the joint struggle of the Indian national [trade union] centres in all their protests so far and we have written to the Indian government as well as the ILO protesting against the labour law changes.”

IndustriALL has recently signed an agreement with fashion brand owner Inditex to protect workers’ rights in supply chains.

“Yes. It took pressure from ourselves and unions around the world, but Inditex made a commitment to not only honour orders made to supplier companies, but to guarantee an ongoing payment schedule and provide financing to keep companies afloat. That will give stability and predictability for suppliers in order to secure jobs and wages.
“Inditex also committed to ensuring that as factories reopen, they do so safely.

“But for us, the most important part of the agreement is that the company’s compliance will be monitored by a global union committee, representing the company’s workers from around the world, including at supplier factories.”

Sanches concludes that “the excesses of globalisation have led to a backlash in many countries. We’ve seen an increase in nationalism and a greater focus on domestic economies, and also in demands for popular sovereignty, as evidenced by the Brexit vote and other phenomena around the world.

“The best way to counter the excessive power of multinational companies over governments and multilateral organisations is through international union solidarity. The unions in the home countries of the multinationals, such as Britain, can play a special role.

“We are all intricately connected to each other. We cannot win a better world for anyone unless we win a better world for all. Now more than ever it is important for the world’s trade unions to stand together in solidarity.”

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