Joint Committee on Human Rights Written Evidence

27.  Memorandum from the Trades Union Congress (TUC)


  The Trades Union Congress (TUC) welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Joint Select Committee's Inquiry on a British Bill of Rights. The TUC has 59 affiliated unions in membership, representing nearly 6.5 million people working in a wide variety of UK industries and occupations.

  The TUC welcomed the publication of the Government's Green Paper The Governance of Britain, which launched a national debate on constitutional arrangements, including whether there should be a British Bill of Rights. The TUC looks forward to participating in this wider debate. This submission concentrates on the role of collective rights, in particular trade union rights, in any future Bill of Rights.

  The TUC believes that if a Bill of Rights were to be adopted in the UK, it must include collective rights for trade unions. In particular, a Bill of Rights should include rights to freedom of association (including protections for trade unions and employers' associations), the right to organise effectively (including the right to strike), and the right to free collective bargaining. These fundamental human rights are recognised and protected by a range of international treaties including the ILO Conventions 87 and 98 and Articles 5 and 6 of the European Social Charter 1961. Although Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights protects freedom of association for trade unions, this Convention right has been interpreted narrowly. The TUC believes that the wider ILO and Council of Europe standards should be incorporated into UK law and should form part of any future Bill of Rights.


  Guaranteeing fundamental rights for trade unions in the UK would benefit workers, the economy and wider civic society. Through collective bargaining and effective worker representation trade unions play a central role in reducing inequality as well as enabling organisations to adapt to increased global competitive pressures. In its 2004 Jobs Study[163] the OECD found: "consistent evidence that overall earnings dispersion is lower where union membership is higher and collective bargaining more encompassing and centralised."

  In July 2007, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report "Poverty and wealth across Britain" which charted the national proportions of poverty and wealth at each period in time. It found that "the proportion of houses that were core poor and breadline poor declined during the 1970s, but then increased again during the 198Os".[164] During the 1990s, while the proportion of core poor households declined, the breadline poor continued to rise. The rise in social equality in the 1970s, tracked by the Joseph Rowntree report, coincided with high levels of collective bargaining coverage and union membership density. The growth in poverty experienced in the 1980s and 1990s was accompanied by a decline in union recognition and collective bargaining arising in part from the introduction of legal restrictions on trade union freedoms.

  Since 1997, the UK Government has introduced a range of welcome measures increasing the rights of trade unions, including the right to be accompanied, the statutory recognition scheme and extended protections for trade union members and officials from discrimination and victimisation. Nevertheless, many of the restrictions on trade union rights, introduced during the 1980s and 1990s, remain in place. These restrict trade union autonomy and limit the ability of unions to represent union members' economic interests effectively.


  The inclusion of trade union rights within a Bill of Rights would also assist in ensuring that the UK complies with international human rights standards to which we are signatories.

  As the Committee will be aware, since 1989 the ILO Committee of Experts has consistently found that UK trade union laws fail to comply with ILO Convention 87 (on freedom of association and protection of the right to organise) and ILO Convention 98 (on the right to organise and bargain collectively. Similarly, in its latest report, published in 2005, the Social Rights Committee of the Council of Europe reiterated the view that UK laws do not comply with Article 5 and 6 of the European Social Charter 1961 in a number of key respects. Issues of concern raised by these international supervisory bodies include limitations on the right to strike, including inadequate protection from dismissal for striking workers; restrictions on trade union autonomy, including the inability of unions to determine who should be admitted into union membership and the exclusion of small forms from statutory recognition provisions. In its Report on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights[165], the Joint Select Committee concluded "The CESCR [Concluding Observations of the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights] concludes that current law places undue restrictions on the right to strike, as protected in Article 8 ICESCR. We consider that the Government should take seriously the successive findings of the authoritative international bodies overseeing treaties to which the UK has become party, and should review the existing law in the light of them."

  Most recently, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK was in breach of Article 11 of the European Convention. The court held that ASLEF's right to freedom of association under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated by section 174 of TULR(C)A 1992 which prevented it from expelling one of its members on the ground of his membership of the British National Party. The TUC welcomes the provisions contained in the Employment Bill currently being considered by Parliament. However, the TUC believes that further measures are needed to comply with the finding of the Court in the ASLEF case that "under Article 11 unions must be free to decide, in accordance with union rules, questions concerning admission to and expulsion from the union." In the light of the ECHR's judgment TUC believes that the Government should carry out a review of all trade union laws to assess whether they comply with Article 11 of the European Convention.

  The inclusion of core trade union rights in a Bill of Rights would also bring UK law and practice into line with the constitutional arrangements of many other countries. Trade union rights are incorporated in national constitutions or constitutional arrangements of the majority of EU Member States. In its recent judgement in the Viking case[166], the European Court of Justice also recognised that "the right to take collective action, including the right to strike, is a fundamental right which forms an integral part of the general principles of Community law". Most other G8 countries' constitutions also recognise trade union rights. Recently, the Canadian Supreme Court introduced constitutional protection for collective bargaining. The Court concluded "Recognizing that workers have the right to bargain collectively as part of their freedom to associate reaffirms the values of dignity, personal autonomy, equality and democracy that are inherent in the [Canadian] Charter [of Rights]"[167].


  If a Bill of Rights were to be adopted in the UK, the TUC believes it must include rights to freedom of association (including protections for trade unions and employers' associations), the right to organise effectively (including the right to strike), and the right to free collective bargaining. These rights should be based upon standards recognised and protected by ILO Conventions and the European Social Charter 1961.

19 December 2007

163   Employment Outlook 2004, Chapter 3, OECD, 2004 Back

164   Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2007) Poverty and wealth across Britain 1968-2005 by Daniel Dorling, Jan Rigby, Ben Wheeler, Dimitris Ballas and Bethan Thomas from the University of Sheffield, Eldin Fahmy, David Gordon and Ruth Lupton. The Policy Press Back

165   Joint Committee on Human Rights (2004) The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rihts: Twenty-first Report of Session 2003-04. Back

166   Viking case (International Transport Workers' Federation and Finnish Seamen's Union v' Viking Line Abp) Back

167   Health Services and Support-Facilities Subsector Bargaining Assn. v. British Columbia, 2007 SCC 27 Back

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