By Owen Tudor Head of the TUCâ€™s European Union and International Relations Department. (First published on June 2nd the TUCâ€™s Touchstone blog)
The annual conference of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is taking place during the first half of June in Geneva, and the TUCâ€™s delegate Stephen Russell has already blogged on the key issue of the conference â€“ the rules governing global supply chains. But there is another, rather more domestic issue on the agenda: the UK governmentâ€™s Trade Union Act. And the ILOâ€™s considerations should be causing very red faces in the Government.
Every year, the Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) â€“ made up of employers, trade unionists and government reps from around the world â€“ considers some of the worst breaches of the ILOâ€™s international employment standards, as identified by the ILOâ€™s hugely respected Committee of Experts. And for the first time since the Thatcher government banned trade unions from GCHQ, the UK is back on the CAS agenda â€“ because ofÂ the Trade Union Act.
The Act will be considered by the CAS next Monday, with their decision due to be reported to the ILOâ€™s plenary session next Friday, 10 June. But whatever the result, the very fact that the Trade Union Act is one of only 24 breaches of international labour standards being considered by the CAS should be embarrassing enough for the UK government.
Whatâ€™s even more embarrassing for the UK is the rest of the list: the sort of international company that the UK is keeping thanks to the Trade Union Act. Other countries up before the CAS this year include Bangladesh, Belarus, Cambodia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Kazakhstan, Qatar, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. These are hardly models of respect for workersâ€™ rights!
The British Government is likely to argue that the Act isnâ€™t in force yet, and that the subsidiary regulations which bring some of its critical elements into practice havenâ€™t yet been written. But thatâ€™s one of the key reasons why the CAS should hear the case: so that its findings can be taken into account, either by scrapping the law entirely which is the TUCâ€™s preference, or amending it to bring it more into line with the fundamental human rights set down in ILO core conventions.
And it was one of the more surprising conclusions of the ILO Committee of Expertsâ€™ report in March, which went beyond its normal practice of saying â€śweâ€™ll see how it turns out in practiceâ€ť by recommending changes to the legislation while it was still being considered by Parliament. The Committeeâ€™s findings were influential in the House of Lordsâ€™ consideration of the then Trade Union Bill, and helped us secure some of the amendments that were won.
Key outstanding issues which weâ€™re hoping the CAS will take up â€“ apart from the Act as a whole â€“ are the use of agency workers to replace strikers, the sectors covered by the double lock balloting requirements, and allowing electronic balloting â€“ all issues still in play.
Of course, the Committee of Expertsâ€™ report still stands, no matter what the CAS decides â€“ the experts are just that, after all! But the CASâ€™ tripartite membership gives an indication of just how far out of step with acceptable practice the Trade Union Act is. And it puts the British government in a roguesâ€™ gallery of workersâ€™ rights abusers that should give Ministers further grounds for thinking again.