By Frank Noakes
LONDON — "It is a serious national evil that any class of His Majesty's subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions." So said Winston Churchill on introducing wages councils in 1909. "There is no reason to suppose that their abolition will push these people into poverty." replies Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard in the 1990's.
The Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill, currently before the House of Commons, will abolish the remaining 26 wages councils which protect the wages of those working in the "sweated trades". Ten percent of the workforce — 2.5 million people — are covered by the anything but generous minimum wage rates, ranging from £2.50 to £3 per hour guaranteed by the councils. These workers are employed in shops, hotels, pubs and in clothing manufacturing, some 80% are women, many of them migrants.
Britain will now be the only country in Europe without a minimum wage system. Many smaller companies actually oppose the scrapping of the minimum wage as they fear new competitors entering the market paying as little as £1 an hour.
Other provisions in the bill include:
- Employers will not be able to deduct union dues without written permission from the employee and that this authorisation must be updated;
- Notification of strikes ballots will need to be given seven days in advance, the ballot must be secret and a sample of the ballot paper must provided to the employer;
- Members of the public will be able to take court action if they have been deprived of goods or services due to "unlawful" strike action.
Even the Financial Times in its November 6 editorial complains that the Bill is "...designed to curb the power of an already enfeebled trade union movement, seemed a hangover from the Thatcherite 1980's when it was first published last year. But now, after nine quarters of recession and with the abolition of the wages councils tacked on, the employment bill looks even more anachronistic."