A tale of two COPs

What actually happens inside COP? Alongside Scottish representatives from UNISON, Prospect, and EIS, the STUC were part of the formal International Trade Union Confederation COP26 delegation. Our Policy Officer, Francis Stuart, reflects on the exclusionary and corporate nature of COP, and the need to build people power outside to affect change.

COP26 was the most exclusionary ever. The international trade union delegation was cut in half; vaccine inequality and VISA difficulties limited participation from the Global South; and the extortionate cost of accommodation made Glasgow the preserve of the rich (with the honourable exception of initiatives like the Homestay network).

The steel fence perimeter around the Scottish Exhibition Centre, marshalled by hundreds upon hundreds of police officers, symbolised this exclusion, and it felt visibly different to COP25 in Madrid.

The large policing bill was supported by the principal sponsors whose logos are emblazoned on the walls: Sky, Hitachi, National Grid, Scottish Power and SSE, Microsoft, GSK, NatWest, Reckitt, Sainsbury’s and Unilever.

There is a distinctly corporate feel inside: one of the exhibits in the main walkthrough area is an electric Formula One Car.

Outside the formal plenary rooms, the bulk of the SEC is given over to country ‘pavilions’. These have the feel of a large trade expo. The UK Pavilion was dominated by panels made up of financial interests, such as the British Gas CEO Chris O’Shea who has fired and re-hired hundreds of workers. It increasingly feels like a space for business to talk about how to create and expand into new green markets, not a space for discussion about how to redistribute income, wealth, power or emissions.

Cameras and reporters are everywhere, waiting for the next celebrity to swan in. Everyone is trying to get hold of Greta. More often than not it is the rich and powerful that emerge out the media stramash, not the representatives of ordinary people. AOC drinking Irn Bru gets column inches, not the hypocrisy of rich Governments.

Trade unionists, as well as indigenous people, youth and environmental justice groups, beaver away following the negotiations and lobbying their respective Governments to ensure reference to key issues. On this, they undoubtedly have some success – I’ve no doubt that various references to Just Transition would not have been in the Glasgow Climate Pact if it wasn’t for the efforts of some extremely hardworking trade union officers. But it still feels like a losing battle.

At best, the Glasgow Climate Pact puts countries on a path to 2.4 degrees warming, not 1.5 degrees. There is no funding for loss and damage for those bearing the brunt of extreme weather events. And there are gaping loopholes in rules on international carbon markets, which will effectively lead to land and resources in the global south being commodified to facilitate continued emissions in the global north.

Let’s be clear, for all the attempts to blame China and India, it is the US and the EU who oppose funding for the Global South and who refuse to recognise their historic responsibility for climate change by increasing climate ambition.

We shouldn’t be surprised at any of this. 40 years of privatisation and marketisation has enabled a corporate stranglehold over climate negotiations in the same way it has in trade negotiations.

The answer to this, is the same as it has ever been – to build the power of ordinary people. Outside the steel fences of COP we saw more than 100,000 people march through the streets. But perhaps more importantly, we saw striking cleansing workers join the youth climate strike. We saw young climate activists dance on Caledonian Sleeper picket lines. We saw trade unionists, community groups, and environmental NGOs take over George Square to demand decent public transport for all our citizens, not just COP26 delegates. We saw Rolls Royce workers talk to climate campaigners about their plans to decarbonise their workplace, independently of management.

The trade union movement needs to join forces with the climate movement. But it also needs to remember its power is in organising working people to take action against employers. We do not need a new tranche of trade unionists skilled in the blah blah blah of climate policy. We need a new generation of trade unionists who can organise in their workplaces and their communities to take action – developing their own plans to decarbonise their work, to take industrial action and to join hands with the climate movement when they do.

Francis Stuart, STUC Policy Officer

Trans Awareness Week

David Dick (he/him):  EIS Union 

We approach Transgender Awareness Week (13th – 19th of November) as trade unionists, and it is therefore incumbent upon us all, to collectively reflect upon the experiences of trans people in 2021.  For trans people in the workplace, these reflections are telling:  in 2016, around half (52%) of trans people didn’t reveal their gender identity at work – in 2021, the number is closer to two-thirds (65%)1.  This highlights what we may have been aware of in our personal lives and anecdotally; that life for some trans people is becoming more difficult and dangerous and progress is going in the wrong direction.  As trade unionists we are duty bound to take action.   

Before we analyse the ways in which our workplaces operate for trans workers, it is necessary to consider how experiences at school shape the workers it produces. Under current Scottish Government education policy guidance, all schools aim to “Get it Right for Every Child” and to develop “successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens”.  Within the Curriculum for Excellence there are a raft of taught skills and experiences given which seek to prepare our young people for the world of work.  Sadly, for trans people, prejudice, violence and social exclusion too easily replicate themselves within the school system.  This means that rather than focussing on learning and achievement, trans children and young people find themselves in a battle for their lives against bullying, self-harm and suicidal ideation.2 

Despite a toxic national discourse which seeks to destabilise the fight for trans rights, there are some positives.  It is testament to their courage that an increasing number of trans and non-binary children and young people are coming out in school.  Scottish government have published updated guidance about supporting trans young people in schools3 in August 2021.  It is vital that teachers take responsibility for familiarising themselves with the issues, to better support the children and young people in their settings.     

As trans young people make the journey from school to work, we have a responsibility as trade unionists to ensure that we provide work environments which are safe, supportive, and sensitively attuned to the nuances of individual circumstances.  We must work together to ensure workplaces have policies and practices which actively protect our trans colleagues and which allow them to achieve their full potential.  It means reflecting upon and challenging the hidden culture of our workplaces and both critiquing and improving the space between the policy and the reality.  As workers and as citizens, we all suffer under constrictions and restrictions which result from workplaces which tacitly endorse a heteronormative viewpoint and cleave to a binary understanding of gender.  One example is the massive social and economic disparities arising from gender inequality.  All workers have much to gain from supporting the struggle for trans liberation and learning from it.   

The struggle for trans rights in 2021 is taking place in real people’s lives in real time, within a vortex of hysterical media voices, transphobic violence and state oppression.  Framing this struggle as a “debate” gives false equivalence to imaginary arguments, dehumanises trans people and denies them the basic freedoms that many others take for granted.  Trans children, trans young people and trans workers deserve respect, support and the space to exist in the world, free from violence.  The opprobrium and vilification they often endure is unconscionable.   

Our collective history in the trade union movement gives us a keen insight into how the media and the state will distort, inflame and seek to undermine any kind of struggle for fairer working conditions and human rights.  We understand intimately the ways in which divisions are sown and nurtured, to prevent us from organising properly and fighting the real enemy.  It goes to the core of our values as trade unionists to use collective action to protect the most vulnerable in society and stand together in the face of hatred and hostility.  Trans voices are an essential and valuable part of our movement towards progress and need to be celebrated as such.  As trans awareness week 2021 approaches, I call for us all to renew our commitment towards the fight for trans equality; to take action in our individual unions in order to make the world for trans children, trans young people and trans adult workers better tomorrow than it is today.    

I would also like to flag my own unions most recent  guidance for teachers on supporting transgender pupils:  

David Dick (he/him):  EIS Union 

1  https://www.totaljobs.com/advice/trans-employee-experiences-survey-2021-research-conducted-by-totaljobs 

2 https://www.stonewall.org.uk/school-report-2017 

3 https://www.gov.scot/publications/supporting-transgender-young-people-schools-guidance-scottish-schools/ 

A recovery that does not explicitly rebuild the damage done to LGBT+ communities will be another failure of government.

In this instalment our LGBT History Month blog series, Korin Queen, a non-binary, bisexual worker and union rep discusses the impact of the pandemic on LGBT+ people in Scotland. They are a member of Unite, the IWW and the STUC LGBT+ Workers Committee.

If there’s one thing the LGBT+ community understands it’s solidarity in the face of adversity. The working class knows, deep down, that we’re being robbed and that only by organising in our unions can we stand a chance of surviving a system designed to keep us pliant and exploited. The LGBT+ community knows too that only by organising amongst ourselves can we stand a chance of surviving against a system designed to keep us othered and unsafe. Capitalism is at the root of these struggles, and there can be no liberation for all until the disproportionate oppression of marginalised groups is fought back.

Which brings me onto COVID. LGBT+ communities are often discussed as “chosen families” – sometimes they’re people we’ve never met but who will always answer your messages, sometimes they’re people we only see when we go out dancing, sometimes they’re a few blocks down the road and they’ll happily come out for a stroll in Queens Park with a coffee even if they’re down to their last few pennies. COVID’s shutting down of hospitality venues and public spaces has meant that for many LGBT+ people who live alone, or who come from backgrounds of estrangement or abuse, their lifelines have been severed and replaced with a pixelated imitation.

The excessive strain that COVID has caused on the health service has meant access to healthcare, when it’s not being attacked by groups using recycled anti-gay rhetoric from decades past, is even more precarious. LGBT+ people have distinct needs in sexual and reproductive health, including affirmative surgeries with waiting lists now up to five years on the NHS. Many also face discrimination from some within the health service itself. These environments can be difficult to navigate at the best of time for people who have been othered for much of their lives, adding the stress of underpaid and undervalued workers, the threat of COVID, and a lack of liveable sick pay to this means that many LGBT+ workers will be even less likely to be able to prioritise their health.

The overwhelming majority of LGBT+ people are working-class. Like other marginalised groups, we disproportionately face prejudice in a UK which seems only to value us as long as we’re profitable and above all else, not making too much of a fuss. The moment we fall outside of the parameters of what’s “acceptable”, we’re hit by social media abuse, astroturfed campaigns spouting lies and demanding repression, as well as threats to our jobs, our homes, and our safety. The rhetoric is clear – don’t come out unless it’s on our terms, and be grateful even for that.

How do we fight this? By empowering LGBT+ organisers to form solidarity networks unimpeded, by amplifying the voices and concerns of LGBT+ workers, and by recognising that an injury to one is an injury to all. Where we intersect into other marginalised groups – workers of colour, women workers, disabled workers, young workers, we make sure we hold one another up. Our community understands this, and knows what battles need to be fought and won at all levels – in parliaments, in workplaces, and in local areas – in order to build a new and liberated post-COVID world from the ashes of the old for all workers, LGBT+ or otherwise. We just need support and solidarity in getting there.

Trans rights in Scotland: where is the progress?

In the latest edition of our LGBT History Month blogs, STUC LGBT+ Committee member Stewart Wakelam, alongside Nathan Graham from Unite the Union, writes about trans rights in Scotland.

February is LGBT+ history month; when we take the time to reflect on the pioneers within our community and celebrate their sacrifices and successes. Our community has made impressive strides in equality legislation as well as changing hearts and minds. But the fight is far from over.

Our comrades across the pond in the US have battled through 4 years of an oppressive right wing regime, determined to roll back hard won rights and protections. Bathroom legislation, banning trans people from military service, school children targeted; even at a federal level, protections have been erased.

We cannot afford to be complacent, thinking that such attacks on human rights would never happen here, not in Scotland, surely we’re too progressive for such thing? And yet, every day brings fresh reports of new, well organised and very well funded organisations working at every level to do just that; to remove the human rights of our trans comrades.

Groups such as LGB Alliance, or Fair Cop have attracted support from those we have elected to lead us; those we entrusted with positions of power within our government. Online forums such as Mumsnet have become a breeding ground for hate filled, right wing rhetoric, dressed up as feminism and concern for women’s rights. The conversation around the GRA reform has become so toxic, that many people are fearful of asking questions or investigating further. This ensures the public is kept in the dark about what is really happening, allowing dangerous precedents to be quietly set.

The impact on the trans community is tangible. Already 63% of trans youth contemplate suicide. With the recent ruling denying trans youth access to vital medical services, that number is only going to get higher. How cruel is it to force a child to live as an identity that is not their own? To force them through irreversible changes in puberty that they don’t want, and all to satisfy a right wing agenda?

We need a government that is prepared to act in the best interests of its citizen. Leaders who will step up to protect the most vulnerable in our society. We need legislation that is fit for purpose, that allow trans people to reach a level of peace in their life without unnecessary and lengthy bureaucracy. That trusts and understands that trans people are capable of making their own life decisions, that removes the inhumane and humiliating acts of gatekeeping. That doesn’t insist that a panel of strangers knows a person’s gender identity best.

The STUC LGBT+ Committee calls upon the Scottish government to bring about the reform of the Gender Recognition Act immediately. Stop the unnecessary and harmful delays. Promises were made and have been broken. This is not good enough. Our trans comrades deserve better, they deserve to have their humanity recognised and their human rights enshrined in law.

Because Trans Lives Matter.

10 Years of the STUC LGBT+ Committee

As we begin LGBT History Month, Willie Docherty, the STUC’s LGBT+ Workers Committee Chair, reflects on the early days of the Committee.

In April 2011 the Scottish Trade Union movement met in Ayr racecourse for the 114th STUC Congress.  During this meeting, a motion was passed with the view to setting up an LGBT Conference within the STUC.  This was considered a timely move as there were thriving groups in place for all other equality strands, and while LGBT rights had come a long way in recent years, we were far from reaching the equality we desired and deserved.

As a result of this motion being passed a coordinating committee was set up with delegates from different affiliates, STUC staff and members of the General Council.  It seemed like a huge task we were faced with – setting up a new group with a constitution and organising a conference.

And that is exactly what we did.  In September 2012 the first STUC LGBT+ Conference took place in the STUC offices in Woodlands Road followed by dinner in the Lorne hotel.  The numbers at this conference were relatively small, but there was certainly something in the air – here as the beginnings of a great thing for LGBT+ Trade Unionists in Scotland.  One of the memories I have of that first Conference was the Chair, Agnes Tolmie, interrupting a guest speaker from London who was warning us against the Tories.  Agnes stopped her and said “Excuse me doll, we don’t have Tories in Scotland…if you see a Tory here they are a tourist”.  How things have changed!

And things have changed.  This year we will celebrate the tenth STUC LGBT+ Conference.  We have grown in numbers and in confidence over the years. 

Over the years, our Committee has been involved in many campaigns to advance the rights of LGBT+ people including equal marriage, LGBT+ inclusive education and trans rights.  We have had many valuable comrades in our ranks and on our committee.  I was a member of that coordinating committee back in 2011 and in 2021 I am proud to still be a member of the committee and to be its Chair this year.

Why don’t you join us for our tenth conference in May and help us celebrate where we have come from?  We have many more years and much work to do in the future.   Help us to do it!

We need to move away from a sterile tactics-driven referendum debate to one which is driven by the economic and social change

Scotland is little more than twelve weeks away from a critical Scottish election and in the midst of a global pandemic. May’s election will go a long way to defining how Scotland will emerge from the health and economic crisis we face and how it might break the constitutional log jam that touches every part of public life.

There is an increasing polarisation, not just between political parties but within political parties on how to deal with the question of a second independence referendum. The latest announcement from Mike Russell that a referendum could take place this year, met with a cynical and angry response by a minority within the SNP, Labour’s umpteenth attempt to find a solution to its problems in Scotland and the Tory’s latest plan to ‘save the union’ all point towards a debate which has become increasingly tactical. All of this is at the expense of a real debate on the purpose of constitutional change.

One thing is clear, the pandemic has laid bare the truth of how far away we are from being the type of country we need to be. We have crushing levels of poverty and economic inequality in Scotland which pre-dated the pandemic. There is no industrial strategy to meet the approaching jobs crisis and far too many of the jobs we do have are low paid and precarious. Our system of social care is not fit for purpose and Scotland is the drugs death capital of Europe. As a response to the current crisis, last week’s Scottish Budget fell short on pay, redistribution and funding for desperately needed local public services.

Twenty consecutive opinion polls have confirmed that support for independence has grown. There is an even larger majority in the country who believe a second referendum should take place. Though what is much less clear is whether there is public support for a referendum in 2021 or even 2022. Many in the SNP seem oblivious to this and it is hard to escape the conclusion that, important though they are, many of the other issues causing the party’s internal civil war, are becoming proxies for that tactical debate.

Labour has its own referendum problems. Its position on the right to self-determination and a second independence referendum is confused at best. Those within Labour who have set themselves against a second referendum for a generation are clearly out of step with a large majority of Scottish voters. To put it starkly, telling Scotland’s younger voters (3/4 of whom support independence) who were in primary school when the last referendum campaign kicked off that they must wait until they are 40 or 50 to have a say on the issue that most dominates Scottish politics, is hardly a strategy for growth.

Once in a generation clearly means different things to different people. For Scottish Secretary Alasdair Jack it is as long as half a century whereas the Good Friday Agreement stipulates that there should be seven years between border polls on Irish reunification.

Irrespective of how many years there are in a generation, it is incoherent to ignore the fact that political conditions have changed significantly since 2014. We have had Brexit, the pandemic and a UK Prime Minister clearly set on reducing the powers of the Scottish Parliament as recently seen with the Single Market Act.

A recent Labour Party report commissioned by Jeremy Corbyn has proposed radical reforms to devolve power in the UK, including a federal parliament, a written constitution and significant new authority for England’s regions. If Labour were to adopt it this would be a step forward in creating a platform for a meaningful intervention on Scottish devolution.

But if the politics that surrounded the ‘once in a generation’ pledge have moved on such as to justify a second vote, so too have the politics that conditioned the debate over further devolution. Rather than scoff at the proponents of devo max and/or federalism because the Vow didn’t deliver what it promised, pro-independence supporters should be open to engaging in meaningful debate even if ultimately opinions will differ.

As thing stand,  we seem headed towards a binary choice between the devolution status quo (with a Westminster Government seeking to undermine the Scottish Parliament’s powers wherever it can) and the SNP’s Growth Commission prospectus for independence which would severely limit the potential for progressive economic and fiscal policy and arguably consign Scotland to a decade of austerity. 

What we really need is a debate which can, at the same time, open enough space to explore alternative plans for independence and alternative proposals for devolution.

This would be a different kind of debate, starting from the economic and social change we need to bring about and assessing new the various constitutional options in this light. For the STUC, the starting point is the People’s Recovery. Our manifesto combines short-term measures to rebuild our economy with medium and longer-term measures to create a democratic and green economy and a society in which workers and their families have fair work, decent housing and a proper safety net. It calls for a fundamental rethink on the purposes of growth and the introduction of urgent measures such as a National Care Service, a green stimulus package, sectoral collective bargaining and democratic public ownership.

Many of these policy proposals can be implemented in the here and now using existing powers. Some would require additional powers for the Scottish Parliament with others requiring independence or a change of Government in the UK.

Aligned to our People’s Recovery, which makes no bones about our priority of tackling the pandemic and implementing a radical programme to reshape society, our Congress recently adopted the position that continuing majority support for independence added to the seemingly likely election of a majority of pro-independence MSPs in May, would make the case for a second referendum unanswerable. But we also agreed that any such referendum need not be a binary choice between independence and the status quo. We need to recognise that the demand for a second referendum is not going to go away but to also accept the possibility that if and when that referendum comes, a third option could be presented

In this context ‘Scotland United’ a series of essays from the Red Paper Collective on the potential for a third referendum option offering a devo-max/federalist choice is a welcome addition to the debate. It both accepts that a second referendum should take place and provides a critique of the Growth Commission’s independence blueprint. It also takes account of a growing opposition across the rest of the UK to the Tories centralising agenda.

Importantly, the publication does not fall into the trap of framing a third referendum option as a ‘way to save the union’. This rhetoric, adopted by the UK Labour Party and others, may resonate in parts of England and with a minority in Scotland, but for the majority here (not least the more than 50% who currently support independence) it is tantamount to plastering the policy with the ‘look no further’ sticker. 

In its submission to the Smith Commission back in 2015, the STUC laid out an ambitious plan for further devolution. It included greater fiscal and borrowing powers, the devolution of employment and equality law including the ability to set a higher minimum wage; the devolution of all relevant income and land related taxes including inheritance tax and capital gains tax reliefs to enable the Scottish Parliament to tackle the inequities of asset and land ownership; additional powers to tailor support for low carbon generation and increased powers over migration.

It is hard to argue that a Scotland Parliament with these powers would not be better equipped to address the current crisis or indeed to take a different future economic and social path.

None of this is to say that devo max is the settled position of the trade union movement in Scotland. Many remain attracted to independence in either its ‘Growth Commission’ or a more radical form. Brexit tells us that ‘independence’ can take many forms and teaches us that the devil is in the detail. Central to any decision will be the currency options presented and the implications for Scottish sovereignty.

But moving away from a sterile tactics-driven debate to one which is driven by the economic and social change we need to see is an imperative that must be grasped.

Do you have Fair Work?

By Fair Work Convention Co-Chairs Grahame Smith and Professor Patricia Findlay

In this years’ Programme for Government, the First Minister announced that the Government would: ‘Work with trade unions and employers to pioneer new ways of embedding Fair Work practices in all workplaces’. Given the challenges we face, it is right that we all strive to do more but what does that mean for workers and employers especially during the current global health crisis?

More than ever employees are being asked to work in different ways. Fair Work should be at the heart of finding solutions to the challenges that arise from home working, the management of working time, balancing working and caring responsibilities and crucially, the requirement for safe and healthy workplaces.

To help achieve this and as part of our ongoing commitment to support fair work, The Fair Work Convention has published a Fair Work Self-Assessment tool to enable workers to assess how far their work and their workplace match up to the five dimensions of Fair Work: Effective Voice, Opportunity, Security, Fulfilment and Respect.

The results will provide workers, both individually and collectively, with the evidence they need to identify priorities, to organise, and to engage employers in dialogue on the action required to improve work and workplace practices.

The reality is that it is employers who largely shape Fair Work practices in most organisations but informed workers’ voice on Fair Work is essential in highlighting areas of potential improvement. As an individual or part of a union, workers’ voice matters and an effective voice can improve the experience of work as well as improving organisational performance.

The Self-Assessment tool will also provide the Convention with valuable data that we will use in our future engagement with unions, employers, the Scottish Government, public bodies, agencies and civil society organisations to embed Fair Work in our recovery and as a driver of positive change and shared benefit.

In these exceptional times adopting a Fair Work approach is more important than ever. We have made great strides in Scotland in placing Fair Work at the heart of our approach to public policy, including our response to the COVID 19 pandemic. But there remains much to do if we are to achieve our vision that, by 2025, people in Scotland will have a world-leading working life where Fair Work drives success, wellbeing and prosperity for individuals, businesses, organisations and society.

Uncertain times create additional anxieties for workers and their employers. This is the time to commit further to Fair Work, not to retreat from it. That means making greater efforts to ensure security of employment, income and hours.  It means more opportunities for workers to acquire the skills and access the support to help them shape and adapt to new ways of working. It means making the health, safety and well-being of workers even more of a priority. And most importantly, it means workers having an effective voice in all of the decisions that affect their work and workplace, including through a union, collectively bargaining on their behalf, if that is their choice.

As the Fair Work Convention said in its Statement on the COVID crisis; necessity is often viewed as the mother of invention, and this unprecedented situation will require much creativity and innovation.  In all of its dimensions, Fair Work provides important guiding principles for unions, employers, and workers as they face new and longstanding challenges together, principles that can influence how we respond to the many challenges to come.

We encourage all workers to use and share our Fair Work Self-Assessment tool, to help set the agenda for union and employers action to shape fair workplaces and the future nature of work and our collective response to economic recovery.

You can find out more about what Fair Work means in this short video, and more about the Fair Work Convention on our website.

Follow The Fair Work Convention on:

Twitter: @FairWorkscot

Facebook: @FairWorkConvention

Instagram: @fairworkconvention

An Unequal Crisis: The Fight For Disabled People Goes On

Robert Mooney, STUC Disabled Workers Committee

We should never forget that behind every single statistic is a person, and it is deeply troubling that disabled people make up more than two-thirds of coronavirus deaths in the UK, so far.

The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on pre-existing structural inequalities and the discrimination that disabled people face. It has also confirmed that when it comes to disabled people and our rights, we are of low priority to both the Government and many employers.

Once again, it is disabled people that have been hardest hit. Throughout COVID, our rights as disabled people have been infringed upon, our voices have consistently been neglected, and disabled people have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. And, if that wasn’t enough, recent research from Citizen Advices indicates that one in four disabled workers are now facing redundancy.

During times of crisis, the pattern and policy approach seems clear: attack the weakest and the most vulnerable in society first.

The treatment of disabled people during COVID and the impacts it is having on disabled workers has correlations with how we were treated during the austerity years. Not only were our benefits and supports as disabled people attacked, but we were the first in the cue when the redundancies took place.

The waves of redundancies as a result of COVID is harrowing and upsetting. Even more so, when many of these redundancies are preventable. None the less, the scale of disabled people that are facing redundancy and the impact that COVID has had on disabled people cannot be ignored.

I feel the same sense of anger today as I did almost forty years ago when I first joined the Trade Union Movement. Back then, I was appalled at the levels of disabled people of working age who were unemployed, and at how inaccessible the labour market was for disabled people. I was infuriated with the stigma attached to disabled people, and at the exclusion, disabled people faced from society and employment opportunities.

I feel ashamed that more than forty years on disabled people still face momentous challenges both in the workplace and in society. It is outrageous, that in 2020 we are still fighting the same battles to be valued, for our voices heard, and for our human rights and dignity to be respected. The disproportionate impact of COVID on disabled people threatens the progress we have made.

Despite living in one of the wealthiest and developed nations in the world, I am in despair at how disastrous the labour market is for our young people. Too many are in low paid, insecure, and exploitative work, and are expected to live off of a zero-hours contract. The employment opportunities for young people and chances of stable employment are slim, and even tougher if you happen to be young and disabled.

From education to employment, our current systems and models consistently fail and disadvantage young disabled people. No young person should be deprived of their basic human rights to learn or work, and no young person should have to fight so hard for their basic human rights. The system is systemically discriminative against disabled people and for our young disabled people in particular. Most young people entering the labour market don’t know any different from austerity and now face the grim impacts of COVID. As a disabled person who has been part of the trade union movement for decades, I am particularly worried about what the future holds for our disabled young people.

Now more than ever, disabled people must be fully equipped with the skills, knowledge, confidence, and support mechanisms to navigate the labour market. Crucially, job opportunities, and guaranteed fair and stable employment that embraces inclusion and diversity must be implemented. The problem is not disabled people and what disabled people bring to the table, the problem is that society and the economy have locked disabled people out it for too long.

People like to wave the word ‘equality’ and inclusion’, however, equality and inclusion in practice if far from enshrined throughout Scotland and the UK. We need an inclusion revolution and a post-COVID society that respects the voices and protects the rights of disabled people.

The COVID crisis has been catastrophic on so many levels. Undoubtedly it has been an unequal crisis. However, it has proven that as a society we can be adaptable and flexible and that we can work in completely different ways and rise to challenges. Post-COVID offers a unique opportunity to build an inclusive, accessible, fair, and diverse society and economy. It offers employers a real chance to embed equality and value the rights of disabled workers.

We are about to embark on the biggest recession that the UK has faced. Disabled workers, and disabled young people, cannot bear the brunt of this crisis and be left behind once again. Austerity is a choice. It failed before and we can’t use it again.

As a trade union movement, we must have a coordinated approach that places Equality and Fair Work at the core, and champion the voices of disabled trade unionists in decision making and policy proposals for things to truly change.

Challenging Poverty: The Mitie cleaners’ fight for the Real Living Wage

As part of our series of Challenge Poverty Week blogs, STUC Campaigns & Communications Officer, Rachel Thomson, discusses the Real Living Wage and the Mitie cleaners fighting for decent pay.

As Sajid Javid announces a rise in the UK government’s “National Living Wage”[1] by 2024, it’s important to remind ourselves what a real living wage looks like and show solidarity with those fighting for it across Scotland and the rest of the UK.

living wage infographic

The graphic above is a good guide on what constitutes the “Real Living Wage” and the UK government’s shrewdly named “National Living Wage” in 2019. Importantly, the Real Living Wage is a wage that is based on the cost of living, the UK government’s National Living Wage is not.

It’s important to note that poverty pay in the UK is gendered and racialised, with women making up nearly two thirds (62%) of workers currently struggling to make ends meet on less than the real Living Wage[2]. Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are affected the most out of all racial groups[3].

The UK has a long history of trade unions successfully campaigning alongside campaign groups and communities, and taking industrial action to increase low pay. At the moment, the RMT are campaigning for the real Living Wage for the Mitie cleaners. Network Rail, the UK’s arm’s length public body of the Department for Transport, outsources the work of cleaning several major train stations across Scotland and England to a company called Mitie Facilities Management, part of the Mitie Group plc.

While the Mitie Group has paid out an astonishing £49 million to its shareholders in dividends over the last five years[4], they insist on only paying their cleaning staff £8.40 per hour. Cleaning, like care work and catering, is often viewed as “women’s work” and is drastically undervalued as a result of this. Earning £8.40 per hour is locking the Mitie cleaners into poverty, while their shareholders and CEO increasingly get richer.

As the cost of living continues to get higher both in Scotland in the rest of the UK, surviving on such a low hourly rate is having increasingly negative impacts on the wellbeing of workers and their families.’. In a recent RMT survey of the Mitie cleaners, 50% of respondents said they were struggling to make ends meet. Respondents reported pay was “only just about enough to pay bills and that’s it”. Respondents also described it as “a continual struggle” and reported “doing without” to cope with budgeting on such a low wage.

The workers are fighting back. With the support of their union, Mitie cleaners have held a series of campaigning actions outside key stations which are cleaned by them. 82,000 people have signed a petition in support of the cleaners, and several motions supporting the campaign have been tabled at both Westminster and Holyrood. Over the next six days, workers will be back leafleting outside six different stations across the UK to increase public awareness of their struggle.

Real Living Wage wins are possible when workers stand together. Just last week, contracted out catering staff working for the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) won the Living Wage after a successful strike by PCS members[5].

In any just society, paying workers at least a real Living Wage is a moral imperative. Workers coming together to collectively campaign for a real Living Wage is crucial to solving poverty. Trade Unions owe it to their members to make it a priority and we owe it as trade unionists to show solidarity with their struggle.

You can support the MITIE cleaners in their fight for the Real Living Wage by signing their petition here: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/pay-the-living-wage-to-mitie-cleaners-now


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-49881980

[2] https://www.livingwage.org.uk/news/news-women-continue-be-hit-hardest-low-wages-uk

[3] https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/research-report-108-the-ethnicity-pay-gap.pdf

[4] https://www.rmt.org.uk/news/rmt-justice-for-mitie-cleaners-campaign-events-this-week/

[5] https://www.pcs.org.uk/news/caterers-at-beis-win-london-living-wage-in-landmark-victory

Challenging Poverty Through Public Services

As part of our series of Challenge Poverty Week blogs, STUC Policy Officer, Francis Stuart, discusses the role of public services in fighting poverty and inequality.

Sometimes, in Scotland we can pretend we are a beacon of progressive equality. But as recent studies show, poverty and inequality are rising from already historically high levels. Looking back over the last 25 years (a period in which parties of varying stripes and colours have held power in Holyrood and Westminster) we can see that income gains have been captured by those at the top.

IncomeGainsByDecileAuthors analysis based on Scottish Government data

As I’ve written previously, addressing this economic inequality will require strong political movements and institutions willing to fight for transformative change. That means more powerful, active trade unions as well as more independent community groups and anti-poverty organisations.

But what demands should these movements coalesce around?

Recently, anti-poverty campaigners have successfully lobbied for new cash benefits, in the form of a ‘family income supplement’ to help address child poverty. In a market economy, putting money in people’s pockets is undoubtedly important, and the new supplement will help reduce poverty, particularly among lone mothers.

However, moving forward, there is a risk that greater social security benefits comes to be seen as the de-facto response. The point of this blog is ultimately to say that we shouldn’t forget the role of public services.

While the Nordic welfare states, often held up as beacons of equality, do have generous social security systems, their primary means of redistribution is through public services.

Historically in the UK, the development of council housing, the NHS, and nationalised industries and services was a primary method through which inequality was addressed.

And still today, public services are more valuable than cash benefits to all decile groups in the UK, including those at the bottom of the income distribution. They are also more likely to maintain public support.

Investing in the wages of public service workers also has a direct impact on poverty and inequality. Large numbers of public service workers, particularly women, are low paid and living in poverty. Investing in health and care, education and council services can help address poverty and inequality; boost the wages of low-paid female workers and create a more caring society. Investing in publicly owned green infrastructure could also help transform our economy in a more equal manner while providing solutions to the climate emergency which we know the market won’t fix.

It is worth acknowledging that the debate between universal basic services vs a universal basic income is in many ways a proxy for some of these issues. In reality, tackling poverty and inequality will probably require both.

However, as a collective endeavour, public services can be an extremely efficient way of providing resources to enable people to participate in society. They should therefore be viewed as a crucial weapon in the fight against poverty and inequality.