The Tories look set to promise a repeal of the Human Rights Act (HRA) and possibly a withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in their 2015 election manifesto. They’ve tried their best to focus the human rights debate on unpopular causes or groups, but the reality is their plans are going to hurt ordinary people the most. It’s vital for Labour to mobilise public support for the HRA and ECHR by showing people how they have a positive impact on their every-day lives.
One of the most important ways the HRA and ECHR help people is by strengthening their rights in the workplace. Next time you’re on the doorstep and you get into a discussion about the challenges working people face, remember that the HRA and ECHR protect against all kinds of abuses of power at work.
You may remember the case of the British Airways staff member who was forced to stop wearing a visible cross at work. It was the ECHR that ruled against BA’s discriminatory decision. You may also remember there was a time when LGBT people couldn’t serve in the armed forces. Again, thanks to the ECHR, now they can. In these cases the ECHR gave people the power to challenge discrimination where UK law wasn’t sufficient to stop it. Without this important layer of protection how many more cases of unfair dismissal or other abuses of power would we see?
The ECHR also gives workers protection when they need to organise, bargain, and protest in order to stop abuses of power that lead to unfair pay or working conditions. In the past, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled to protect employees in the UK against discrimination on the grounds of their union membership. This has helped to ensure workers can’t be fired or disadvantaged because they join a trade union to engage in collective bargaining with their employer.
The ECHR also protects the right to take industrial action. The Tories want to erode the right to strike in the UK, but the ECHR could be used to help stop this from happening. The European Court of Human Rights recently made judgements protecting the right to strike, but if we withdraw from the ECHR the Court won’t hold any sway in Britain. No wonder the Tories want to shelve human rights.
The ECHR and HRA can also help in extreme cases involving withheld wages and even modern day slavery. Hundreds of people in the UK are forced to work without pay, but the authorities are still catching up to this reality. The Human Rights Act has played a key role in ensuring cases are properly investigated. In one such case, a woman from West Africa was brought to the UK where she was forced to work as a domestic servant in London. She escaped after two years but police refused to investigate her case. Only after a judicial review under the Human Rights Act did the police carry out an investigation, which then resulted in a conviction. Without the Human Rights Act this extraordinary abuse of power would have gone unpunished and undeterred.
The reality in modern Britain is that workplace discrimination and other abuses of power happen all the time. Many people have either experienced it themselves or know someone who has. The HRA and ECHR provide a vital layer of protection that stops and deters attempts to violate workers’ rights. So as the Tories keep talking about getting rid of them, let’s remind people how much of a difference they can make in their lives.
Katy Clark is the MP for North Ayrshire and Arran