Workplace equality is fast-becoming the new employment relations battleground, with Britain’s trade union movement increasingly focusing on the latest diversity issues and campaigns.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber signalled his determination to fight for workers rights in this area by calling on all employers to agree to promote equality.
In the foreword of the TUC’s second biennial equality audit Barber said matters such as equal pay and discrimination were now ‘burning issues’ for the organisation, which is determined to help improve the situation.
“Equality is at the heart of the trade union agenda” he said. “All employers should have a legal duty to promote equality and, in advance of any such legislation, they should do it voluntarily.”
Rights for reps
He also called for union equality reps to be given the same rights to time off as learning and safety reps, who are legally entitled to spend time away from their regular duties to focus on improving workplace conditions.
“Just as union workplace, learning and safety reps get time off to concentrate on making work a fairer, better skilled and safer place to be, there is a need for more equality reps to allow unions to fight discrimination and give more workers the chance of a better work-life balance.
“Giving equality reps, time off from their other jobs would help make this a reality,” said Barber.
The growing emphasis on equality issues, such as disability, parents’ rights and work-life balance started in 2001 when the TUC changed its own rules, requiring all unions to promote equality in their activities.
Unionised workplaces less discriminatory
The latest audit found that staff in unionised workplaces are less likely to suffer discrimination and will generally experience better levels of work-life balance than other workers.
The document also highlighted growing union success in negotiating better rights for parents and in fighting racism, sexism, ageism and homophobia in the workplace.
According to the findings 54% of union representatives had successfully battled for equal pay agreements, while just under half had negotiated better deals for gay, lesbian or bisexual workers.
“This survey proves that unions can make and are making a difference to the lives of millions of working people by encouraging employers to tackle the issues that could otherwise be ignored,” Barber added.
Robbie Gilbert, an expert on the trade union movement from consultants Eversheds, said workers’ groups are increasingly focusing on improving equality and diversity for members.
“It is something that will feature on the trade union agenda more than ever before and they will be looking to confront employers on these issues.
“If unions are going to grow their membership they will have to focus strongly on equality issues,” he said.
Gilbert predicted that the unions would focus particularly on age discrimination with the spectre of new legislation on the horizon for 2006.
“In a broader sense people are looking for fairness and transparency in the workplace,” he added.
John Clinch, a member of Employment Lawyers Association’s (ELA) management committee and a lawyer for Unison, confirmed that equality was now at the heart of the union agenda.
“At Unison equal pay is our number one priority and I think there’s a growing recognition among workers that something needs to be done about it,” he said.
Clinch said that increased pressure from the unions could see further reforms of the current employment laws.
“I think there needs to be better legislation, rather than any new laws. The proposed single equality act should streamline things and improve the overall package of regulation.
“There needs to be changes in the way some laws are interpreted – especially around equal pay, where claims can often take years to resolve,” he added.