Andy McDonald – 2021 Speech on Employment Rights

The speech made by Andy McDonald, the Labour MP for Middlesbrough, in the House of Commons on 25 January 2021.

I beg to move,

That this House believes that all existing employment rights and protections must be maintained, including the 48-hour working week, rest breaks at work and inclusion of overtime pay when calculating some holiday pay entitlements, and calls on the Government to set out to Parliament by the end of January 2021 a timetable to introduce legislation to end fire and re-hire tactics.

May I start by welcoming the Secretary of State to his place and wishing him every success in his new role? I am sure that I speak for the whole House in paying a heartfelt tribute to the workers of our country—the women and men who have battled so hard throughout this pandemic, persevering in the most difficult environment that any of us, who have not suffered the horrors of war, have ever known. I am talking about those keyworkers: our nurses, our doctors, health and care workers, shop workers, cleaners, transport workers and, indeed, everybody who has worked so selflessly and bravely battled to maintain services throughout our country. Many of them have had to go to work with real concerns about their own safety and that of their families. Sadly, too many have worked in unsafe conditions because of the Government’s failure to enforce workplace health and safety standards or to provide the financial support needed for people to self-isolate. Tragically, so many workers have lost their lives, including a member of our own House of Commons family, namely Godfrey Cameron, and we grieve with, and for, all who love them. Workers are facing enormous stresses and pressures, and many are having to deal with major mental health challenges. It is with all those workers in mind that Her Majesty’s Opposition bring forward this motion today.

This pandemic has exposed the many deficiencies in workers’ rights and protections, and now there is a real yearning that, when we emerge from this crisis, a better deal for working people is not only possible, but essential. Yes, the economic position is tough, but people came back from a devastating war in 1945 determined to forge a better society for their families to prosper in. Such a moment, as President Biden said, of renewal and resolve is right now. At no time in living memory has it been clearer that the safety and security of working people is inextricably linked with public health and the economy.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend agree that some employers, such as British Airways and British Gas, have used the covid situation to exploit workers and to try to change their terms and conditions in this very difficult environment?

Andy McDonald

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend in that respect and I will come on to deal with many of those issues later on in my speech.

Against this backdrop, it is shocking that the Government would even consider embarking on a review to rip up the hard-won rights of working people. As revealed in the Financial Times, the Government have drawn up plans to end the 48-hour working week, weaken rules around rest breaks and exclude overtime when calculating holiday and pay entitlement. If the Government have their way, these changes would have a devastating impact on working people. Quite simply, it will mean longer hours, lower wages and less safe work.

The 48-hour working week limit is a vital protection of work-life balance. It is also a crucial health and safety protection, without which the physical and mental wellbeing of workers and the general public is at risk. But let us not beat around the bush: working longer hours leads to more deaths and more serious injuries. Nobody wants their loved ones cared for by our fantastic, but exhausted and overworked, nurses or ambulance staff, or for buses and trains to be operated by tired-out drivers. After the sacrifices of the past year, it is unconscionable for the Government to plot changes that would endanger workers and the public.

It is not just about making work less safe; the Government are proposing to exclude overtime from holiday pay entitlements, which would be a hammer blow to the finances of the country’s lowest paid and most insecure workers. Under current rules, regular overtime is included when calculating holiday pay entitlement, ensuring that it reflects the hours that are actually worked. Scrapping those rules would mean that the holiday pay that workers get would be lower. The average full-time care worker would lose out on £240 a year, a police officer more than £300, an HGV driver more than £400 and a worker in food and drink processing more than £500.

The losses, however, will be even more severe for those who work irregular hours, such as retail workers, who work lots of overtime. USDAW, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, described the case of Leon, a warehouse worker who works night shifts for a major parcel delivery company. Employed on an 8.5-hour contract, but working 36.5 hours in an average week, Leon would lose £2,149.22 per year.

All of that is at the start of the stewardship of a new Secretary of State for Business, who wrote in “Britannia Unchained” in 2012 that the British are

“among the worst idlers in the world”.

The Secretary of State is wrong: far from being lazy, British workers work some of the longest hours of workers in any mature economy, yet our economy still suffers from poor productivity.

The solution is to strengthen employment rights, not to strip them away in a bid to make working people work even longer hours. The Secretary of State excused his comments as being made a long time ago, but in 2015 the right hon. Gentleman wrote and edited another pamphlet, called “A Time for Choosing”, in which he said:

“Over the last three decades, the burden of employment regulation has swollen six times in size”,

before singling out protections on working time, declaring that the UK

“should do whatever we can to cut the burden of employment regulation.”

Does he stand by that?

James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con)

On recent writings, Labour had a manifesto in December 2019 that committed to a four-day week. Is that still its position?

Andy McDonald

There is a clear and active discussion about working time and the quality of life for working people. Since time immemorial, that discussion has taken place. I have no doubt that it will be a subject for debate and consideration between now and the next election, and way beyond. It is a perfectly proper area of debate.

The Secretary of State has spent a career calling for employment protections to be weakened, so he has a lot of ground to cover if he is to persuade the country’s 30 million-plus workers that he is on their side.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)

The hard workers my hon. Friend is talking about includes the many British Gas workers in my constituency, GMB members I met last week. I was very surprised to be told by them that the chief executive of British Gas had called personally to put pressure on them to accept new, worse terms. Bizarrely, he suggested that senior Labour figures had endorsed that. Will my hon. Friend confirm that that is absolute nonsense, that we stand in solidarity with them and that British Gas should get back around the table for serious negotiations? Of course, I draw attention to my membership of the GMB and the support that it has provided me.

Andy McDonald

I am more than happy and delighted to confirm that that is utter and complete nonsense. Is it likely? I just ask people: is that really likely? Of course it is not.

If the Secretary of State now wants to say that the 48-hour cap, holiday pay entitlements and rest breaks will be protected, and that he will scrap the planned consultation, perhaps he can say so in unequivocal terms here today and vote for our motion.

Today’s motion also calls on the Government to set a timetable to introduce legislation to end “fire and rehire” tactics. It is not a new phenomenon, but it has gained prominence because of the conduct of major employers such as British Airways, Heathrow and British Gas—some in circumstances that they claim to be justified by the covid pandemic. It is about sacking workers and hiring them back on lower wages and worse terms and conditions, including 20,000 British Gas employees who kept working through the pandemic to keep customers’ homes warm and worked with the Trussell Trust to deliver food parcels. I think of the engineer who explained that he was often the only face that people living in isolation were seeing. This is how they are repaid.

Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that fire and rehire has been around for a long time, but does he agree that that shows just how weak the current unfair dismissal laws are and how they really need to be strengthened?

Andy McDonald

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have had an erosion of protections and rights over many years, and we have to deal with it and review it comprehensively.

This also includes British Airways, whose use of fire and rehire was described by the cross-party Transport Committee as

“a calculated attempt to take advantage of the pandemic to cut…jobs”

and weaken the terms and conditions of its remaining employees, and it deemed this “a national disgrace”. The Leader of the Opposition was right to call for fire and rehire tactics to be outlawed, saying:

“These tactics punish good employers, hit working people hard and harm our economy. After a decade of pay restraint—that’s the last thing working people need, and in the middle of a deep recession— it’s the last thing our economy needs.”

We have repeatedly warned that the practice would become increasingly common, triggering a race to the bottom, and I take no delight in observing that this warning has come to fruition. Research published today by the TUC reveals that fire and rehire tactics have become widespread during the pandemic. Nearly one in 10 workers has been told to reapply for their jobs on worse terms and conditions since the first lockdown in March, and the picture is even bleaker for black, Asian and minority ethnic and young workers and working-class people. Far from levelling up, the Government is levelling down, with nearly a quarter of workers having experienced a downgrading of their terms during the crisis.

Fire and rehire is a dreadful abuse and allows bad employers to exploit their power and undercut good employers by depressing wages and taking demand out of the economy. It is all the more galling when those very companies have had public funds to help them to get through the pandemic. The economic response to the 2008 financial crisis in Britain was characterised by poor productivity and low wage growth. The Government fail to understand that well-paid, secure work is good for the economy, and greater security for workers would mean a stronger recovery. If the Government had listened to the Leader of the Opposition back in September, countless workers could have been spared painful cuts to their terms and conditions, but it is not too late for the Government to act. They can act now to introduce legislation to end fire and rehire and give working people the security they need. If they do that, they will have our full support.

Finally, I turn to the Government’s amendment, in which they say that

“the UK has one of the best employment rights records in the world”

and that the UK

“provides stronger protections than the EU”.

That is simply not the case. The UK ranks as the third least generous nation for paid leave and unemployment benefits out of the US and major European economies. A UNICEF analysis of indicators of national family-friendly policies has the UK at 34th on one index and 28th on another, lagging behind Romania, Malta and Slovakia and just edging ahead of Cyprus.

The Government’s amendment also “welcomes the opportunity” to strengthen protections for workers, but what are the Government doing with the opportunity that they so welcome? What have they been doing on fire and rehire? All we have had is sympathy and hand-wringing, when action was and still is required. Where were they on Rolls-Royce at Barnoldswick? It was Unite the union and the courage and determination of those brave workers that fought to secure their jobs, not this Government. What works best for the UK is what works best for its working people, and undermining their rights and protections does not cut it. Accordingly, Labour will not be supporting the Government’s amendment.

Why did the Secretary of State’s Department embark on this review, and how can it be that his Department has sought responses from companies without the consultation being published? Can he confirm that it is now dead in the water, or does he intend to bring it back at a later date? We were promised an employment Bill that would make Britain

“the best place in the world to work”.

The Opposition would very much welcome a Bill that did exactly that, but given his track record, we have major doubts. Perhaps he can tell the House when we will see that Bill introduced.

From this point on, it is about how we rebuild our country and secure our economy. That objective has to have working people—their interests and their health and wellbeing—right at the forefront. As a bare minimum, that has to include maintaining the basic protections that employees have had up to now and then building on them. Sadly, workers will find no hard evidence of this Government enhancing their rights and protections, but it is what they were promised, and it is what they are expecting, so we will be holding the Government to it.