Call for £10 minimum wage “desperately outdated”, declares Andy McDonald

Andy McDonald
© Richard Townshend/CC BY 3.0

Below is the full speech delivered by Andy McDonald, Labour MP and former Shadow Employment Rights Secretary, at the Unite policy conference today.

Thank you for having me give this solidarity speech today, to my own union, of which I am so proud to be a member. It is a great privilege to be here at the 6th Unite policy conference. Can I give a huge thanks to our new general secretary, Sharon Graham? Particularly 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.

It is also a real pleasure to be back speaking with comrades in person again after the past year and a half. As you know all too well, it has been an incredibly tough time – and it is Unite members who have been on the frontline 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. This has had such a devastating impact, both in terms of the lives needlessly lost and the poverty and financial insecurity people have experienced and continue to experience. But as we can see from the appalling figures of hospitalisations and deaths, this pandemic is far from being done with us.

Sadly, many of the problems that we now face, and will continue to face, as and when we emerge from the pandemic, existed long before this coronavirus hit. Since 2010, when the Tories came to power, we’ve seen the stagnation of incomes – the worst in over a century – 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. In my home town and constituency of Middlesbrough, over the past five years alone, the relative child poverty levels have almost doubled, with two out of five children now living in households with an income below the poverty line. This trend has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Data from the Trussell Trust has shown food bank usage soaring, with many families turning to emergency food parcels for the first time. Over a third of UK households are only one missed paycheque or unexpected expense from financial ruin, leaving them unable to cover their bills, put food on the table and meet their housing costs. And with the quadruple whammy of the government’s cruel and callous decision to slash the Universal Credit uplift, combined with the rise of the cost of living exacerbated further by the fuel crisis, and the rise in National Insurance Contributions to come, means that many are going to be facing the dreadful decision this winter between heating and eating.

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.

Conference, as our general secretary has said so powerfully: it is our task to ensure that it isn’t working people who pay for the current crisis. 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. 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.

The call for a minimum wage of £10 an hour is desperately outdated – given that it is over half a decade old, and considering the great sacrifices that those on the lowest pay have made during the pandemic. I do find it exasperating that some in the Labour and trade union movement do not have greater ambition than poverty wages. It was on this principle that I stepped down from my role in the shadow cabinet last month.

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. It ought to be a basic point of principle for our movement that we fight for workers to be paid enough to raise them out of poverty and have a decent standard of living free from financial insecurity.

Yet thanks to this government and the ruling class that it represents, with their singular focus on extracting the value created by working people, far too many are currently denied the basic necessities and rights that they should be entitled to. The government’s long-promised employment bill, which they claimed would ‘make Britain the best place to work’, has been delayed year-on-year, showing how hollow their words are and how little they care about improving the lives of workers.

We urgently need to see 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. Over the past year and a half, I have been dedicated to this task. During my time serving as the Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights and Protections, I worked alongside the Labour Party’s affiliate unions, including Unite – and I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Steve Turner and Unite’s political team for their invaluable contributions – we established a taskforce to develop a policy platform to realise this new deal for working people.

And after months of fruitful collaboration, we produced the green paper on employment rights, which was announced last month, and which I understand has been distributed to you here. In the document we spelled out the policies that would make great strides towards bringing about justice in the workplace. We set out 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. 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. It shouldn’t be the case that when a person who has their working life totally determined by a company or business, but is bogusly categorised as ‘self-employed’, is then denied the rights that are reserved for only those who are classed as ‘employees’.

Some months ago, I spent a fascinating day with an Amazon delivery driver. Hearing of the delivery of three packets of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum and a delivery of a bath bomb was strange enough. But quite frankly, it’s ridiculous that such workers are classed as self-employed. Every minute of every working day is in the total control of Amazon or the agency. It shouldn’t have to be that we rely on the courts to determine the true status of a job. People are either genuinely self-employed – and as such they need a better deal – or they are workers, with full employment rights from day one. The twisting and turning by companies as they find all manner of ways to exploit their workforce and avoid their obligations as employers, has to stop.

The pandemic has also demonstrated the devastating consequences of the inadequacy of Statutory Sick Pay, both to people’s incomes and to public health. 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. But all these rights and protections we hope to win for working people are not worth the paper they are written on without proper enforcement. Sadly, this government’s regime has been proven to be totally inadequate during the course of the pandemic. Under-resourced and over-stretched agencies have struggled to enforce health and safety regulations, leading to deaths that were preventable, and millions suffering stress, depression, or anxiety.

The health and safety executive’s indefensible decision not to classify Covid as ‘serious’ has meant that inspectors have been unable to halt work activities exposing workers to coronavirus, putting working people and the wider public at risk. It is outrageous that after the deaths of thousands of working-age people from Covid, and with many hundreds of thousands suffering from Long Covid, those responsible for keeping workplaces healthy and safe, do not consider the virus to be a ‘serious’ risk. In the first year of the pandemic, just one in 171 workplaces had a safety or workers’ rights inspection, and not a single employer was prosecuted or fined for putting workers or the public at risk of contracting Covid-19.

And when it comes to the enforcement of the National Minimum Wage, the situation is just as dire. A staggering two million people are paid below the national minimum wage. Yet there are currently just 18 Employment Agency Standards inspectors responsible for inspecting 40,000 employment agencies. Our new deal for working people would therefore see the establishment of a properly funded Single Enforcement Body to protect workers’ rights. The new body would need extensive powers to inspect workplaces and bring prosecutions and civil proceedings on workers’ behalf relating to health and safety, minimum wage, worker exploitation, and discriminatory practices. And we would need to see a further extension of the time period for bringing claims to Employment Tribunals, with tougher penalties for those who break the law or fail to comply with tribunal orders.

Trade union health and safety reps also have a vital role to play in keeping workers safe, which they have demonstrated so forcefully during the pandemic. Utilising the knowledge and experience of trade unions to maintain healthy and safe workplaces everywhere is key. This must be part of a broader empowerment of trade unions, and the removal of the restrictions that have been imposed on them. That means: repealing anti-trade union legislation including the draconian Trade Union Act 2016; defending the right to strike; strengthening trade unions’ right of entry to workplaces to organise, meet and represent their members; along with the roll-out of Fair Pay Agreements negotiated by trade unions across sectors of the economy.

At the last election Labour committed to establishing a Ministry of Labour as is commonplace in other countries. One of the opportunities under such a Ministry would be to bring trade unions and employer representatives together to establish and agree minimum pay, terms and conditions, which would then be binding on all employers and workers in a sector. This would form a ‘floor’ for those workers in that sector, including on hours, and prevent exploitative employers gaining a competitive advantage over those who engage their workforce on good terms and conditions.

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 with the threat of fire and rehire. 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.

In the first year of the pandemic, a staggering three million people – or one in ten workers – faced attacks on their rights and cuts to their wages thanks to their employers using the threat of Fire and Rehire. And it has been young workers, Black, Asian, and minority ethnic workers, and those on low pay who have been disproportionately impacted. Allowing working people to be bullied on to lower wages and worse terms and conditions is both morally wrong and economically illiterate, and it should be outlawed.

Whilst the Tories have wrung their hands as they’ve claimed to oppose the practice, they have actually encouraged it through inaction. On Friday, I will be proud to speak out against the practice in the second reading of Barry Gardiner’s Bill, and vote to put an end to Fire and Rehire once and for all. It will be an expression of the Tories rank hypocrisy if they choose to oppose the bill, as the government has indicated it will do.

So, conference, it is high time we had a new deal for working people, where all workers are valued and treated with the dignity, decency, and respect they deserve. I’m not supposed to tell you what goes on in the shadow cabinet – although I know you won’t tell on me – but earlier this year we did receive a most brilliant presentation from Sir Michael Marmot, sometimes described as the Beveridge of our time. As you know, over a decade ago he reported in his paper ‘Fair Society Healthy Lives’, and he has revisited his work ten years on. One of the objectives he has addressed was the creation of fair employment and good work for all.

In his address to us, he set out some of the details around the appalling inequalities that have become so entrenched and exacerbated over the last ten years. And he was asked how we best communicate the scale of those growing inequalities and how we might turn it around. Whilst that’s really the job of politicians, the very clear guidance that came back from Michael stuck with me and it was this: “Tell the truth about what’s gone wrong and be bold about how to fix it.” So that’s our task – in our communities and in our workplaces.

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. Conference, the challenge is immense but so is the opportunity. There is a real appetite – a hunger for change. 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. Together, united in our common struggle we can achieve that better world for all, and secure our new deal for working people. I look forward to working with you all to make it a reality. Thank you and solidarity.

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