The seismic Brexit vote has fundamentally changed the political and economic trajectory of our country and the United Kingdom as a whole. It has unleashed a new set of challenges and threats to our membership in Scotland – and to all working people – as Theresa May and her cabinet begin to decide on our future relationship with the EU.
Let’s not forget that government ministers openly pushed for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) prior to the EU referendum, despite the fact that the ECHR is a product of the Council of Europe, a body distinct and separate from the European Union. One of the key architects of the Brexit vote, Michael Gove, while as Justice Secretary, said he “hoped” that the UK would remain a signatory to the ECHR but that he “can’t give a 100 per cent guarantee”.
People should be under no illusions that our established employment and human rights are now being targeted by the Conservative government, under the cloak of Brexit. This was, after all, part of the free market rationale for those in the Tory and Ukip ranks campaigning for a Leave vote.
The UK government’s decision to pass the Trade Union Act was specifically designed for the purpose of reducing workers’ rights and to weaken the effectiveness of trade unions. This is despite the UK government being required to respect Article 11 of the ECHR and UN conventions, which provide everyone with the right to form and join trade unions.
In Scotland, there have also been failures to implement rights respecting policies and laws. The Scottish Government continues to award contracts to companies that have admitted to blacklisting trade union members. We have missed opportunities to bring our rail service back into public ownership. We have missed opportunities to bring our bus services back under public control. There is a gap between rhetoric and reality which needs to be closed.
So, how can we best protect workers in Scotland from a hostile Conservative government that will use Brexit to their ideological advantage?
Local government and health services are already devolved to Scotland with collective bargaining frameworks. Public and private employers are already being encouraged to voluntarily sign up to the Scottish Living Wage.
But as a union, we believe Brexit compels us to go further.
The current Scotland Act (2016) is already outdated and requires radical transformation. As a union with a large membership in both the public and private sectors, we see on a daily basis the detrimental effects caused by the current employment law framework including the explosion of zero-hours and temporary contracts, bogus self-employment exploited by companies seeking to evade tax contributions, and breaches of the national minimum wage.
Therefore, for as long as Scotland remains part of the UK, Unite believes we must move towards a clear position of Home Rule rather than a gradualist and incremental approach to more powers. This must, in our view, include the full devolution of employment law, inclusive of trade union rights, and the setting of the minimum wage.
It should include full control over skills and apprenticeships, the devolution of the Employment Tribunal system – with adequate resources and without the charging of fees. And it should also include powers on common ownership, including powers to take out public stakes where appropriate, such as in our oil and gas sector.
As the UK and Scottish Government outline their respective positions on the unfolding negotiations with the EU – and as the desired outcomes of each administration inevitably diverge – those of us who believe in the need for a far-reaching package of reforms in Scotland must speak out for that cause.
The status quo is no longer sufficient. It could leave us at the mercy of a hostile Conservative government. However, a Tory designed race-to-the bottom on employment and human rights can and must be avoided. It is time to be bold, for the sake of not only Scottish workers, but for all workers who live in our nations.
Pat Rafferty is Scottish Secretary of union Unite