Labour MP and former shadow employment rights secretary Andy McDonald addressed Unite’s policy conference on Wednesday (October 20) calling for a new deal for working people.
McDonald thanked Unite’s new general secretary Sharon Graham “for the solidarity that she has shown to me personally in recent weeks, especially following my difficult decision to step down from the role of Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights and Protections, and for extending the invitation to speak here today”.
He paid tribute to Unite members who he said have been on the front-line during the pandemic, keeping the country running.
“It is you who have experienced first-hand how the lack of individual and collective rights of workers, along with the weakness of health and safety protections, have created unsafe working practices and economic insecurity,” McDonald said, addressing delegates.
McDonald highlighted the stagnation of incomes since the Tories came to power over the last decade “meaning that many workers have experienced a real-term pay decline; in-work poverty has hit new highs, with one in six working households below the poverty line”.
“This trend has only been exacerbated by the pandemic,” he added, as he highlighted data showing soaring food bank use and increasing poverty since the pandemic began.
“We have also seen how the structural inequality, discrimination, and entrenched disadvantages faced by women, Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority workers, disabled and LGBT+ workers have meant the Coronavirus pandemic has had a disproportionately devastating impact on these workers,” McDonald went on to say.
“We cannot allow the rich and powerful once again to shift the burden of our economic recovery onto the shoulders of working people and those most in need, as they did with the austerity cuts that caused the deaths of tens of thousands of the most vulnerable in our society following the financial crash,” he continued.
“That is why it is key that we now see a raft of policies to support working people, and first and foremost we must see a rise of the minimum wage to a level of £15 per hour,” McDonald told conference.
He pointed out how the minimum wage call for £10 an hour “is desperately outdated” and called for greater ambition.
“It was on this principle that I stepped down from my role in the Shadow Cabinet last month,” he said. “After many months of a pandemic when we had made commitments to stand by working people, I simply could not look those same workers in the eye and tell them they are not worth a wage that is enough to live on.
“I believe everyone should be able to live fully flourishing lives, not simply survive.”
McDonald made the case for a “New Deal for Working People, so that all workers gain the comprehensive set of rights and protections they ought to have, and so that trade unions are empowered to organise, bargain and win for working people”.
He recounted how he worked with Unite and other unions to develop an agenda to “end insecure employment practices, by giving all workers their full rights from day one of their employment”.
“That would mean no delays to workers having legal protections against unfair dismissal, or having the right to work flexibly,” he said.
“Fathers wouldn’t have to wait for six months before gaining the right to paternity leave and pay, and Mothers wouldn’t have to wait to access statutory maternity pay.
“Our New Deal for Working People would also see the creation of a single status of ‘worker’ for all but the genuinely self-employed, in order to put an end to the injustice of the current regime which allows employers to exploit those who currently have fewer rights thanks to their employment status,” McDonald added.
“The pandemic has also demonstrated the devastating consequences of the inadequacy of Statutory Sick Pay, both to people’s incomes and to public health,” he went on to say.
“Workers who have symptoms of Coronavirus, but who can’t afford to exist on the weekly rate of £96.35 – or else because of their employment status, or because they earn too little, are not entitled to Statutory Sick Pay at all – have felt they’ve had no option but to go to work whilst feeling ill.
“It’s essential that we see this change. We simply cannot allow the situation to continue in which working people are putting their lives at risk– and the lives of their co-workers and their loved ones – because they can’t afford to take the time off work to care for their health.
“So, we must fight for the level of sick pay to be raised to a living wage, and ensure all workers have access to it from the first day of their employment.”
McDonald noted however that proper enforcement was just as important as rights and protections, saying the New Deal for Working people would see the establishment of a properly funded Single Enforcement Body to protect workers’ rights.
Turning to fire and rehire, McDonald noted that exploitation of workers has manifested itself in the guise of certain employers using the cover of the pandemic to attack the rights of their employees.
“Despite the critical work that Unite and other trade unions have been doing to fight against the practice, thousands of members are still facing the threat of having their pay cut, their hours of work extended, and their rights going up in flames,” he said.
McDonald highlighted Labour’s attempts to ban fire and rehire through a bill being put forward by Labour MP Barry Gardiner, and emphasised the importance of a new deal for working people where all workers are “valued and treated with dignity, decency and respect they deserve”.
“But, with little prospect of removing this Tory government in the very near future, it is up to us in the Labour Movement – Trade Unions and the Labour Party working together – to organise and fight these battles in our communities and in the workplace,” he added.
McDonald told conference that “the challenge is immense but so is the opportunity”.
“There is a real appetite – a hunger for change,” he noted. “It’s up to all of us, and especially our political leaders, to listen to the ambitions and aspirations of working people and to respond by shaping and articulating that vision and making that offer – that transformational agenda that our country and our world so desperately needs.
“And although I no longer speak from the frontbench of the Party, I am totally committed to standing shoulder to shoulder with you, campaigning on these critical issues and doing all that I can to amplify the voice of this union and the whole trade union movement in Parliament,” McDonald concluded. “Together, united in our common struggle we can achieve that better world for all, and secure our New Deal for Working People.”
By Hajera Blagg
Pic by Mark Thomas