It all seems terribly recondite, especially in the light of the seeming cracks in the tectonic plates of the Tory Party, but I’d like to go back to another little Tory fib – this time from our very own Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor. This concerns the totally justified stance of local trade unions that any Freeport on the Tees must not be used to create “rights-free” zones with lower wages and poorer conditions. Leading this demand is – naturally enough – UNITE, who represent the vast majority of workers at Teesport and on the various terminals and jetties along the river.
UNITE defending terms and conditions
Following the election of new UNITE General Secretary, Sharon Graham, UNITE is committed to setting up a new “hub committee” made up of shop stewards and company representatives – and the union adds it will “defend terms and conditions” and ensure the promise of thousands of skilled jobs is delivered.
Just before Christmas, UNITE Regional Officer Pat McCourt said:
“While we welcome the creation of potentially thousands of new jobs on Teesside, it is just as important that the workers who will make this freeport a success are fairly rewarded, enjoying secure employment with good terms and conditions. UNITE is determined that there will be no race to the bottom in this freeport.”
A response from Ben Houchen
This only served to trigger Ben Houchen’s auto-cue.
The Gazette reported that:
“Mr Houchen has hit out at the union’s stance – saying it ‘makes no sense’ and arguing workers’ rights and employment laws were ‘specifically excluded’ from freeports. This means there is no change in rights and regulations to employees, and nor can there be.”
However, the freeports contain no such provision in their structure. To do this, the legislation setting them up would have to specifically geographically disable a whole raft of existing trade union and labour relations law. The primary legislation is the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 which has been amended over time, most recently the Employment Relations Act 2004 and the Trade Union Act 2016. It covers things like access to ACAS, health and safety and the ability to strike. The only excluded groups are the armed services and the bobbies – no mention of Freeport workers.
However, the clincher comes from 140 miles away over the other side of the Pennines. There, the North West TUC (representing all the affected workers in the new freeport zone), Merseyside’s equivalent of Ben Houchen (Steve Rotheram), the combined authority and the local employers (specifically Peel Ports, the docks operator) are happily sitting down around the same table under the aegis of a contract between the TUC and the other parties.
And so, in late October, at a meeting of the LEP / LCR partnership, Ms Lynn Collins on behalf of the Trade Union sector took her seat. In her remarks she “advised that she had been helping to support the mass testing pilot in Liverpool. She thanked the Local Enterprise Partnership for communicating with businesses to promote the scheme. She referred to the issue of low levels of statutory sick pay for employees and the absence of information from the Government. She reported that the consultation on the Fair Employment Charter had ended the previous week. She also referred to the “Kickstart” scheme and stated that a Project Worker had been engaged to work with Trade Unions on good standards and practice within the scheme. Union Learn facilities were being used to give support to people as the disproportionate impact of Covid was becoming apparent. She also referred to the increasing awareness of Long Covid as a long-term medical condition and how staff can be supported who were unable to return to work full-time.
Merseyside and Middlesbrough
Alas for Ben Houchen, it wasn’t a spectre of barricades in the streets of Bootle or Birkenhead, but sound practical Trade Union input into shaping the world of work. If it can be done in Merseyside, it can be done in Middlesbrough. Over to you now, UNITE.