Mental health and stress in transport and food workplaces are right at the top of our agenda. Pressure to win contracts through undercutting in the relentless “race to the bottom” translates into intense pressure on transport and food workers throughout the supply chain.
This means hard-fought-for working conditions, stability and security are constantly threatened and eroded, with pressure on pay, pressure on pensions, pressure on working time, on safety, training and equality.
Permanent contracts are being replaced with bogus self-employment, agency workers doing the same work on worse terms and conditions and a two, three and even four or more-tier workforce artificially dividing workers — all leading to isolation, a feeling of powerlessness, a climate of fear and even to trafficking and modern slavery.
Decent working hours so you can earn enough and have a family and personal life are having to be fought for, rather than accepted as the starting point for negotiations.
The growing uncertainty in the transport and food sectors over the impact of EU exit, automation and digitalisation is intensifying this pressure.
Decisions in financial markets, hedge funds, technology companies and immigration policy are creating enormous pressures on workers in transport and food sectors across the world, threatening their livelihoods and the services and businesses they sustain, without the workers ever being at the table, or even considered.
Proud professional workers and decades of achievements are bypassed at the click of a button; again artificially dividing the current and future workforce, and young and older workers. No way to run a safe, accessible, integrated, sustainable transport service. No way to securely, sustainably and safely meet the food needs of the country.
Faced with this onslaught, Unite’s broad industrial strategy for secure work, a strong union voice and decent pay, and an equality strategy for workplaces free from discrimination, violence and harassment, underpin everything we do.
Across transport we are building alliances and prioritising cutting diesel emissions, mental health first aid and ending the “race to the bottom.”
We have launched a diesel emissions register to record exposure, we have engaged all the major road transport and logistics employers in action on mental health and set up union industrial hubs in ports and airports, linking up workers.
In food, drink, agriculture and retail, we are calling with others for safe, healthy food and high-quality jobs, negotiating for the living wage and quality apprenticeships as a minimum, protecting the gangmasters licensing regime and monitoring the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board in England compared with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And we continue to campaign for reinstatement of the rights of migrant domestic workers.
Shambolic Tory approach
These are the basics we want to build on. But right now the shambolic Tory approach to Brexit is threatening every single one in so many ways.
Seventy per cent of the raw ingredients relied on by the food and drink sector come from the EU and 29 per cent of the workforce are non-UK EU nationals, including 90 per cent of the vets in meat hygiene.
The sector is worth £27bn to the UK economy, a major employer in every part of the UK. So the impact of Brexit negotiations is critical. And yet, as a result of a freedom of information request, Unite has uncovered that the government is refusing to publish a report on the impact of leaving the EU on food prices and possible food shortages, let alone the impact on workers and standards in the sector.
In aviation, if the UK does not retain access to the Single European Sky agreement, no flights to 27 EU member states and 47 nations with EU agreements will be possible. Tickets are sold in advance, so this is a threat to the whole industry.
UK membership of the European Aviation Safety Association is vital, and as employers relocate their registered headquarters, Brexit must not bring into aviation the “flags of convenience” model already devastating the shipping industry.
In road transport — buses, lorries, coaches, trams, taxis — EU legislation protects UK workers and communities — qualifications, licensing, drivers’ hours, tachograph standards, vehicle standards and roadworthiness — all must be retained into UK law.
In the logistics sector there is a skills shortage, and the industry needs to be able to retain and access the best talent, including protections for EU workers currently employed, alongside new investment in training.
Of course we can reform standards for the better, and Unite is up for that, but right now we must not let Brexit be used as an excuse to turn the clock back.
In ports, we cannot have new layers of customs clearance, in rail manufacturing technical specifications need protection, as does funding from the EU for next generation passenger vehicles and biofuel projects.
Nor can we let Brexit further undermine municipal buses, rail public ownership, control and reregulation of key transport infrastructure.
And finally, this year, on November 25, UN Day to End Violence Against Women, Unite is strongly supporting the call for a powerful new ILO core labour standard on violence and harassment in the workplace. No worker should be living in fear. Violence, harassment and discrimination are not “part of the job.”
Unite’s message is clear: “You are not alone. Join the union. Get involved. Together we can make a difference.” We need to — and we do.
This comment first appeared in the Morning Star, November 12