If the government is serious about human rights at work, it really has to
scrap the anti-union laws right now
When the Human Rights Act (HRA) came into force in October 2000, there was a
long spasm of comment about its possible ramifications. At one end was the
lofty praise: human rights had become the only absolute, universal source of
value for a secular age, it was held, with the United Nations declaration as
the credo and Kofi Annan the high priest. At the other, came more sticky
enquiries about whether it was possible to sack a worker in such an
uncharitable way as to violate their human rights.
Yet since then, somehow, it just hasn’t caught on. Think of human rights and
it is despotic regimes scything down demonstrators and conscripting children to
work in mines that spring to mind. Somehow, in our snooty Western way, human
rights are beneath us – a developing world thing, remedial, pre-industrial.
In tribunals, applicants often sling in a human rights infringement to pep
up an otherwise drab claim. But that is about it. There have been few signs of
a grand reshaping of the relationship between citizen and state, and the
Government seems happy to keep it that way.
So, then, a surprise: the working title for the forthcoming single equality
body is the Commission for Equality and Human Rights.
We all know about the first bit. Faced with having to absorb a new raft of
rights from Europe dealing with discrimination on the grounds of age, sexual
orientation and religion, the Government had a choice of creating new equality
organisations, sharing the new responsibilities among existing bodies like the
Equal Opportunities Commission, or setting up a new, all-encompassing
meta-equality organisation. Wisely, it chose the latter.
But what about the second part: ‘and Human Rights’? What is that all about?
Equality is only one core human right. The International Labour Organisation
(ILO), the UN agency dealing with work, has 186 conventions, of which the UK
has ratified 85.
The answer is that in a long-forgotten 1997 White Paper, Bringing Justice
Home, the Government said there may be a need for a commission to "help
nurture a culture of rights and responsibilities" springing from the HRA.
A parliamentary committee duly looked into it and decided in March this year
that the case was compelling. Thus, the DTI spotted the ideal moment both to
shake up equality institutions and deal with human rights at the same time.
Furthermore, the decision avoids spawning too many new quangoes, which, as
everyone knows, have a nasty, bureaucratic habit of squabbling among themselves
and demanding more money.
We shall have to wait and see what the final version looks like. But if the
Government presses ahead with a human rights dimension for the new equality
commission, that could prove very interesting.
In the field of employment, the UK has one notorious blemish on its human
rights record – a blemish that both employers and Tony Blair are keen to
maintain. The UK has the most restrictive labour laws in the advanced world, as
Blair occasionally boasts. Legislation outlaws secondary strikes, and allows
employers to offer financial incentives to workers who opt out of collective
bargaining, despite the UK having ratified ILO conventions 87 and 98, dealing
with freedom of association.
ILO alarm about UK human rights reached a zenith in the late 1980s and
1990s, following the Conservative Government’s anti-union reforms. In the ILO
view, the legislation constituted undue state interference in the internal
affairs of trade unions. The Tories couldn’t have cared less. But Labour is
more sensitive to criticism hailing – albeit indirectly – from the UN itself.
Recently, the ILO’s Committee of Experts has expressed mounting concern that
the Government has left offending aspects of the Tory reforms in place.
"The committee must recall once again that workers should be able to
take industrial action in relation to matters which affect them even though, in
certain cases, the direct employer may not be party to the dispute, and that
they should be able to participate in sympathy strikes provided the initial
strike they are supporting is itself lawful." So pronounced the committee
in 2002 in a report on the UK. In the scrupulously diplomatic legalese of the ILO,
this is one step short of a paragraph highlighted in bold text – a fate
reserved for countries like Burma and Byelorussia.
Then there is the undermining of trade unionism through financial
incentives. For example, Ofcom, the new communications regulator, is currently
offering staff ‘flexible benefits’ worth up to £15,000 if they give up being
represented by Bectu, the broadcasting union. ‘Bribe’ is Bectu’s word.
Once more, the ILO’s committee of experts is highly critical of such
practices because they represent a departure from state neutrality in
"Current [UK] legislation allows employers to offer financial
inducements to employees to sign personal contracts even though they may be
performing identical work as those who refuse to sign, thereby discriminating
against the latter," the committee said.
Can a country be pro-human rights, but anti-freedom of association?
In traditional religions, there is always this kind of debate about the
extent to which adherents can cherry-pick a doctrine without
self-contradiction. So it will be with the secular creed of human rights.
If the Government wants to promote human rights, it seems hard to see how it
can defend the anti-union laws.