Going for the jugular

Dave Prentis on the Trade Union Bill and its attack on human rights

The right to strike is a fundamental human right recognised across the democratic world. It has played a crucial role in helping workers – whether they are a member of a union or not – to secure better conditions and lives for them and their families. The new proposals to make it harder to strike, to allow employers to employ agency staff during a strike, to introduce new criminal sanctions on picketing, criminalise other dispute related protests and to add new surveillance powers to the snoopers charter specifically for trade union activity are all attacks on our basic rights. Social media activity linked to a dispute will also need to be registered in advance. This is yet another proposal for legislation that is consistent with the Conservative’s anti-human rights agenda. In fact, it is very much linked to the Tories’ attack on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Human Rights Act. The ECHR protects the rights of workers under freedom of association. In a case a few years ago involving the Turkish government’s ban on public sector strikes, the European Court of Human Rights used the ECHR to declare the law incompatible with Turkey’s human rights obligations.

Mandate to intervene

The European Court of Human Rights may therefore have a mandate to intervene against the Conservatives’ anti-strike proposals. Aware of this, the Conservatives have developed what looks like a deliberate and calculated plan to assault workers’ rights and undermine the ECHR at the same time. While we, as trade unionists, rightly celebrate human rights and access to justice, our government is busy working on further reforms aimed at shutting down dissent and weakening people’s rights at work. Already, the Lobbying Act has constricted civil society organisations ability to protest and cuts in public services and Employment Tribunal fees have seen the number of cases bought by workers collapse by close to 80%, something Unison is already challenging in the courts. As Frances O’Grady from the TUC recently said, “Dictatorships and authoritarian regimes routinely clamp down on freedom of association and spy on dissenters. Everyone who cares about civil liberties should be worried about these plans”. Unison has been a long time member of both Liberty and Amnesty International and is also a member of the Human Rights Alliance to protect the Human Rights Act.


This is yet another proposal for legislation that is consistent with the Conservatives’ anti-human rights agenda

We hope our allies will rally to help the biggest voluntary movement in the UK, the trade union movement. Though the Trade Union Bill has many other threats to the voice of ordinary workers across the UK, there is one other area with serious human rights implications, namely the Communications Data Bill. The planned legislation will enable the tracking of everyone’s internet and social media use, and will strengthen the security services’ warranted powers for the bulk interception of communications. Given that the government is currently being investigated for mis-using its existing powers to unlawfully spy on lawful trade union activity, any additional powers could have a significant impact on trade union activists going about their lawful activities. In addition, by proposing to criminalise picket infringements via the Trade Union Bill, it is much more likely that any additional surveillance powers would be able to be instigated ‘legally’ in disputes with employers. Home Secretary Theresa May set up the judge-led public inquiry to scrutinise the failings of the police’s long-running undercover infiltration of hundreds of political groups. The remit of the inquiry – to be headed by Lord Justice Pitchford – is being drawn up at the moment and is due to be announced any time. The call for this enquiry from trade unionists follows revelations by a whistleblower that Scotland Yard’s undercover unit, the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), gathered intelligence on members of at least five unions. Former SDS member Peter Francis disclosed that during a four-year spell undercover infiltrating political groups, he spied on members of Unison, the Fire Brigades Union, Communications Workers Union, National Union of Teachers and the National Union of Students.

Surveillance powers

As the current law requires that surveillance powers must be employed proportionate to any harm to privacy caused (as required by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), any expansion or change to the UK’s surveillance powers should be proposed in primary legislation and clearly and accurately described in the explanatory notes of any Bill to allow for necessary transparency and full debate. Unison members believe that human rights are not only practical rights that improve the services we all use every day but also improve our workplaces. For example, we are pleased to be working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission on their taskforce with employers on improving conditions in the cleaning industry. It is time for unions and civil society to unite around a common vision of individual and collective rights that brings all our aspirations for a good society together.

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