Status of Workers Bill [HL]

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Excerpts
2nd reading
Friday 10th September 2021

(2 years, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, and to offer the Green group’s support for the excellent Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, which he so clearly and powerfully outlined. I was standing in this very spot yesterday, speaking in the debate on the £20 cut to universal credit. As many speakers highlighted then, the majority of people affected by that are in work. The fact is that we have created a legal framework in the UK in which work very often does not pay.

The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, in offering his very welcome and perhaps slightly surprising support for this Bill, gave some anecdotes about where he has seen wages rise in response to a shortage of labour supply. That is true in some parts of the country, for some kinds of jobs, but there are still many parts of the country where that is not the case and where we see a situation in which people are forced into any job they can find, at any wage rate.

In his introduction, the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, said a simple definition of a worker is a person who works for a living. Of course, we have a society at the moment where people are forced to do that or starve, and we do not regulate that work to ensure that it gives people decent conditions. If we had a universal basic income society, which gave people a genuine choice about whether to engage in employment and on what terms, we would be changing the balance of power in that relationship on an individual basis. But that is not where we are: we have benefits that apply high levels of conditionality, so people are forced into exploitative jobs. That is where we are now, and the Bill would go some way towards addressing that situation.

One of the other things that workers can do, sometimes under extreme difficulty, is organise and get together. In contemplating this Bill, I thought back to various picket lines I have been on, particularly with the Independent Workers’ Union, the IWGB, with cycle couriers, who are the kinds of people who have worked for the same company, sometimes for decades, under extremely insecure conditions. Back in 2015, I was on a picket line with some who had not seen their pay rise in 15 years. I am not talking here about rises in real levels; I am talking about pounds and pence—people paid the same money over 15 years, unable to raise it. That is the situation we have now.

I will focus particularly on the construction industry because, both in your Lordships’ House and in society in general, there is very little awareness of the extreme precarity and forced fake self-employment circumstances in which 60% of manual construction workers find themselves. Now, my father was a builder; I know something about what life is like in the building trade. It is hard and still terribly dangerous, and I echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, about our utter failure to regulate so many aspects of employment, not just wages and conditions. The comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans highlighted the way in which we have put so much pressure on workers to negotiate with their employers in conditions of extremely unequal power, knowledge and resources, and so are forced into unfavourable situations.

Finally, I will pick up on the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, who, as other Peers have said, stressed how exploitative, unscrupulous companies are then advantaged against those that might want to be or are doing the right thing. We are talking here about some of the largest multinational companies in this land, which behave differently in other nations but exploit the workers of the UK.