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I would add that the subject is of immediate concern to the constituents of MPs across Scotlandand, as the question asked last Thursday by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) so amply illustrated, across the United Kingdom. Equal rights for employees throughout the UK should be a concern of all Members of the British Parliament.
The company Argos is exploiting a loophole in the law whereby a protection afforded to shop workers in the rest of the UK does not at present apply to Scotland. That is the protection that makes Sunday working voluntary. Argos is offering staff the stark alternative of doing compulsory Sunday working or facing the sack. The anomaly in the law probably goes back to the time of Stanley Baldwin and the Shops Act 1936, which extended only to England and Wales, probably because Sabbatarianism was so strong in Scotland at the time that it was not felt that protection was needed there.
Whatever the reason, when the Shops Act 1950 went through, it too applied to England and Wales, and so did the Sunday Trading Act 1994 and the Employment Rights Act 1996, although there was separate legislation that applied to Northern Ireland. In the mid-1990s, the Conservative Government had the support of Opposition parties in passing those two Acts. They intended to ensure that shops had the flexibility to trade on Sundays and shoppers had the flexibility to shop on Sundays, but that shop workers had protection so that those who objected in principle to working on Sunday would not be forced to do so.
I shall spell out the present legal protection. Shop workers employed on contracts that do not oblige them to work on a Sunday should be allowed to refuse to work on a Sunday without fear of dismissal, redundancy or any kind of detriment. Indeed, the law goes much further, and says that shop workers on a contract that expects them to work on a Sunday should be able at any time to give the firm three months' notice that they wish to opt out of that, and refuse to work on Sundays in future, without any detriment.
trading companies have accepted that, as an "issue of principle", they should apply the spirit of that law to their employees in Scotland. Argos did precisely that in the mid-1990s, allowing its staff to sign an opt-out clause of the kind permitted under the 1994 and 1996 legislation.
Why, then, is Argos now rewarding staff who between them have given many years of loyal service to the company with an ultimatum of compulsory working or the sack? First, that is appalling staff relations. Secondly, it is an affront to freedom of religion at a time when, I am glad to say, we accept far more the right of
It is probably true to say that people's deep feelings about Sunday are best shown in films such as "Chariots of Fire", which represented the deep feelings that Eric Liddell had about running on Sunday. Although such feelings are less common in Scotland now than they used to be, they still exist and the rights of the people who hold them deserve to be respected.
However, even people with more liberal opinions object to the idea of being forced to work on Sundays, when that means days and times of the company's choosing. Other groups, too, have the right to enjoy Sunday in the way that they wish. For example, couples often find that it is the one day when they are both off work together. That is particularly true for families, as it is the day that children are most likely to be off school. In our society, carers and those with family responsibility tend to be women, so I would argue that the company's proposal is sexually discriminatory. Indeed, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers tells me that almost all, if not all, the staff who have made complaints about the move are female.
The company's proposal is discriminatory in another way. It clearly discriminates against people simply because they live in Scotland; it could not be introduced anywhere else in the United Kingdom. It is also a denial of human rights. The legislation was passed between 1994 and 1996 under a Conservative Government, with the support of other parties, and the company's proposal is surely against all this Government's core beliefsour beliefs that we should support faith communities, be family-friendly, oppose discrimination and uphold human rights.
Not only I but many other Members of Parliament, Church leaders and people in the media have all contacted Argos, and I want to say something about its response. First, the company said that it had made the move because it needed more workers on Sundays. Internal monitoring and comments from customers had suggested that those working on Sundays were less experienced, and therefore gave a less good service than the Monday to Friday staff. Does that apply only in Scotland, or has the move been made just because of a legal loophole in Scotland?
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): My hon. Friend, like me, has been in contact with the company and with USDAW. Does he agree that the underlying fact is nothing more than a desire to cut costs for Sunday working? The company has not been short of staff in any of its 37 stores in Scotland, and it has always had quality staff. This move is penny pinching. By manipulating the contractual system, Argos will achieve small savings at the end of the day.
Argos has also said that in some of its stores, people will be expected to work only one Sunday in nine. However, in another store, people will be expected to work one Sunday in two. If staff are confronted with a
Argos claims that other companies have introduced similar measures. USDAW says that it knows of no other company that has tried to force existing staff, on pain of dismissal, into compulsory Sunday working. Argos claims to respect the religious observances of its staff, but does not say how it proposes to do that.
Argos says that it has gone in for consultation but, contrary to its agreement with the union, it engaged in no prior consultation with USDAW. Argos claims that 97 per cent. of staff are accepting its proposal on a voluntary basis. That figure sounds rather like those votes that used to occur in communist dictatorships, does it not? Such dictatorships would claim that 97 per cent. voted yes, which was usually the result of a mixture of coercion and imagination. I suspect that is what applies in this case.
To use the word "voluntary", when one actually means compulsory Sunday working or the sack, is to use that word in a way that would fit fairly well into Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four". USDAW has a collective grievance from 69 of the staff who objected totally. If we work out the arithmetic based on that, the company would have to employ more than double the staff it actually has in Scotland for the 97 per cent. figure to be remotely possible. Leaving aside the fanciful arithmetic, and pretending that the 97 per cent. figure is not an arbitrary invention, we must ask why on earth, if 97 per cent. of the staff were prepared to work voluntarily, the company is threatening hundreds of their best and most experienced staff with the sack? Surely, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) suggested, a very slight increase in financial reward would resolve the problem immediately. I gather that Argos only offer time and a half, whereas the wages councils used to recommend double time for Sundays. Possibly a very slight adjustment to their additional payment might resolve the problem.
However, the company document that deals with this matter speaks of "week 22 to week 34", which refers to giving staff notice on week 22 and having all matters resolved by week 34. That makes precisely 12 weeksa period that has been chosen for a reason. Under present contractual notice, staff who have worked for less than four years for the company can be dismissed in four weeks. Staff who have worked for over 14 yearswho may have given decades of loyal service to the companyhave to be given 12 weeks. The company is sayingin its caring fashionthat it wants to ensure that the staff who have worked longest for the company are out at the end of the 12 weeks, without further consideration.
Let us consider the treatment of individual staff. A mother who wanted to spend time with her daughter was told, "You can find someone else to watch over her." A daughter who wanted to give respite care to an aged and very infirm parent was told, "That can be done any day." Having read several such comments, I find the company's attitude callous and outrageous. The basic human decencies such as maternal affection, care for sick parents or personal convictions are treated as if they are sins against the corporate greed of the company. Although the company claims that in truly exceptional circumstances it may give a temporary stay of execution to staff not wanting to work compulsorily on Sundays, it makes it clear that such individuals should be brought back in every month so that their personal circumstances could be reviewed, to see whether the company finds them acceptable, and obviously it can continue to put pressure on them.
I find it appalling that staff who have given faithful Monday to Friday service for years should have that sort of intrusion into their personal lives. It is not really "Nineteen Eighty-Four"; it is a more a reminder of the 19th century. If not actually slavery, the atmosphere is similar to that of Victorian domestic service. I was going to say it was Dickensian, but that would be unfair. Even Scrooge at his worst allowed Bob Cratchit time off without making intrusive personal enquiries into his family circumstances and demanding a regular update on whether Tiny Tim was really all that ill.
If Argos persists, we will need to change the law. Perhaps we should change it in any case, to bring Scotland in line with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. If the company does persist, we will not need to take retrospective action to resolve the problem because the law in England and Wales, if extended to Scotland, would give staff on Sunday contracts the right to opt out within three months. We may nevertheless want additional clauses stating that the right to opt out should be immediate where coercion has taken place, and that there should be a right to reinstatement. However, I hope that that will not be necessary.
Even at this late stage, I appeal to Terry Duddy to consider whether he really wants to nurture the public image of a cheating bully who has worse staff relations than Ebenezer Scrooge. I ask him and his senior management to listen to Church leaders, the Government, Parliament and all parties. Already, early-day motion 1498 has been signed by 150 hon. Members, and I suspect that it will receive the support of many more. I ask him to think about his staff, the level of morale that press-ganging creates and how many
Compulsory Sunday working is objectionable to the British Parliament and the British people. It is illegal in the UK, except in Scotland. Perhaps we need to extend that legal protection to Scotland but, in the meantime, we urge and expect all companies throughout the United Kingdom to abide by the spirit of the law.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) on securing the debate. It was also a great pleasure to arrive early enough to hear the Under-Secretary of State for Transport give an eloquent and clear exposition of Government policy in the previous debate.
I am a member of USDAW and I acknowledge and record the support that it gives to my constituency. I share the concern that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North has for the interests of retail workers. We have introduced several measures to protect the rights of workers that were neglected in the past. We are a Government who always encourage employers to treat employees fairly and in a spirit of partnership. Indeed, we have made available £5 million to support projects that promote partnerships between employers and their employees.
Employers who fail to heed the needs and wishes of their employees are unlikely to be able to recruit and retain a committed work force, which is so essential in these days of fierce competition. I always deplore any attempt to coerce employees to adapt to unwelcome work practices and patterns, particularly when it involves Sunday working. We recognise that many people do not wish to work on Sundays, whether it be for religious reasons or so that they can spend time with family and friends. Good employers will always respect that.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North represents a part of the United Kingdom that has a tradition of respecting the Sabbath. When the Olympic committee ordered Eric Liddell to compete on a Sunday, he refused. What makes Argos think that it can compel his spiritual successors to work on a Sunday, against the Christian convictions that they hold so dear? Almost every other national chain of stores has avoided doing that and has secured the voluntary co-operation of workers who do not object to Sunday working. Why is Argosa reputable companyacting in such an insensitive way?
Of course we recognise that many people want to go shopping on Sundays. Many people have such busy lives that Sunday may be the only day on which it is possible for them to shop. Employers want to cater for that, and the law does not stand in their way.
The Government have done more in five years to protect workers' rights, through legislation and a 21st-century partnership with employers, than any previous Government. We restored trade union rights at GCHQ within 13 days of coming to power and we brought in statutory procedures for trade unions to obtain recognition in organisations with more than 20 employees.
The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) praised the quality of shop staff in his constituency and I join him in praising the dedicated work by shop workers throughout the United Kingdom. It may help hon. Members if I spell out the rights of workers in more detail and set them against any attempt to coerce them to work on Sundays. Our landmark national minimum wage, which is now supported by all parties, has benefited 1.5 million workers; the automatic entitlement to four weeks' paid annual leave under the working time regulations has transformed the rights of more than 3 million people; and 400,000 part-time workers now benefit directly from fair treatment for part-time work. I hate discrimination, and at a stroke we abolished discrimination against part-time workers. To support the weak against the strong, from September 2000 we have given a worker attending a grievance or disciplinary hearing the right to be accompanied by a colleague or trade union official. Since 1 June 1999, the qualifying period for making a claim against an employer has been increased from one year to two.
Protection for whistleblowers came into force on 2 July 1999. Agreements to waive the right to claim unfair dismissal in fixed-term contracts were abolished on 25 October 1999. We increased maternity leave to 18 weeks on 15 December 1999, and next year we are taking that up to 26 weeks, when standard maternity pay will also go up to £100 a week. Fathers will also get an automatic right to two weeks' paid paternity leave at the same rate. Last year, we shortened the qualifying period from two years to one.
Sunday shop opening has been legal in Scotland for many years and is widely accepted. Sensitive employers have respected the diverse traditions of various Scottish communities and various religious beliefs. Such citizens do not expect to be asked to work on Sundays, and their contracts do not provide for Sunday work. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North explained that USDAW reached an understanding with a number of large retailers in Scotland, including Argos, when Sunday shop opening was legalised in England and Wales in 1994. The understanding was that those employers would honour the spirit of the special protection given to shop workers in England and Wales. It is greatly to be regretted that Argos appears to have changed its stance.
I warn any employer that seeks to change employees' contracts unilaterally that whether employees can be required to work on Sundays depends on what has been negotiated and agreed in their contracts of employment. Once those contracts have been agreed employers are not free to vary their terms whenever they feel like doing so. A contract is legally binding on both employer and employee. If an employer changes the terms and conditions of a contract without an employee's consent, that employee can consider making a breach of contract claim.
Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): I appreciate what the Minister is saying. Does he realise that many Argos workers are simply not in a position to reject unilateral changes, because their stores are in areas in which it would be difficult to find alternative employment? They are in a weak economic position, so will he not consider legislation to solve the problem?
Nigel Griffiths : I have every sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's comments and he is right. We must protect the weak against the strong, but there is not time to protect the Argos workers who are facing problems now with legislation, which, as he knows, takes months and sometimes years to take through Parliament. There is no tap to turn on legislation at a click of the fingers. We are discussing today the sensible proposals put forward to see whether that company, and any other company that is considering taking the same pathI know of nonewill see sense and recognise that when workers are represented and have legal rights, which I have spelled out, it may face legal action on the contracts that it wants to vary. If employees are dismissed for refusing to accept a variation of contract or simply for refusing to work on Sundays if their existing contract does not require that, they can make a claim under our unfair dismissal legislation.
Mr. Russell Brown : Because of my contacts with USDAW, I have been pressing that point. Employees will be able to make a claim for unfair dismissal, but it is strongly suspected that the company will merely give
Nigel Griffiths : My hon. Friend makes a good point. The evidence for a change has not convinced him, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North or USDAW. I would have thought that that would severely weaken the position of a company seeking to change the terms of contracts, and lead to a possible legal challenge. That is why I hope that it will be possible for Argos to sit down in a spirit of conciliation with representatives of its work force and hon. Members of all parties who are concerned for their constituents, and reach a sensible agreement.
Existing legislation provides an essential framework to ensure that employees are decently treated. Any shop worker in Scotland who is dismissed for refusing to work on Sundays, if they have worked for a year, can go straight to an employment tribunal under the unfair dismissal legislation, thus avoiding court actionalthough that door will not be closed. In addition, all employers would do well to note that the 1998 working time regulations provide for all employees to have a rest period of at least one day a week or two days a fortnight and limit the number of hours that they can require employees to work to an average of 48 in any week. That ensures that everyone can have the minimum break from working necessary to protect their health and safety, and enables them to spend time with their family.
I want to make it clear that the Government deplore any attempt to coerce employees into Sunday working. I hope that the employer whose actions prompted this debate will listen to the hon. Members who have spoken today, to Church leaders in Scotland, to the mood of local communities and to its work force. I warn the company that shop workers in Scotland are not defenceless or without possible redress if they are ill treated by employers for refusing to work on Sundays. I join the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North in asking Argos to seek an amicable solution and uphold the traditions of a company that was much respected hitherto.