Workers rights are human rights

I was privileged to be one of four panelists discussing Nicola Sturgeon’s Jimmy Reid Memorial lecture at the STUC this evening. The others were James Dornan (SNP MSP), Drew Smith (Labour MSP) and Myrto Tsakatika (in place of Cat Boyd, from RISE). This is what I said (more or less).


JimmyReidOne of my proudest moments was, having been elected Rector of the University of Aberdeen, having a student share my address to my Rectorial installation as “not Jimmy Reid, but worth a read”. Reid’s address, was of course one of the great speeches. Famously printed in full by the New York Times, as the greatest speech since the Gettysburg Address, it dealt with alienation.

And alienation is at the heart of the debate about human rights today. We live in a world where, more than ever before, workers are having their rights eroded. The horror stories such as those coming from the Amazon warehouse in Fife are only the tip of an iceberg of casualisation and informalisation.

In the referendum we began to seriously reconsider what it is to be a worker: what rights do we deserve in the workplace, how should we empower workers. We realised that the culture of low pay isn’t good for anyone. We demanded a Living Wage – and in case George Osborne is listening, that’s a wage you can live on – not a slightly elevated minimum wage.

Some things have changed considerably since the UCS work in. Now a much more feminised workforce is much more subject to the forces women have always been subject to: low pay, casual work, underemployment. Where it used to be women who were employed to do the typing, despite often being more capable than others in the office, now it is whole classes of worker that are having their skills underused. Where in Jimmy Reid’s day it was deindustrialisation that posed the great threat to Scotland’s economy, now it is the depredations of global capitalism.

We need proper legislation on corporate homicide, and we need it to be enforced vigorously. We need to assure workers that their health and safety will be paramount at work. We need to take their health and wellbeing seriously. We need to end bullying in the workplace. As someone who has seen first hand the deployment of bullying as a management technique, I can assure you that it is deeply damaging. And worryingly it appears to be the vanguard approach in undermining workers.

Workers with full time contracts are bullied until they leave, then replaced with workers on zero hour contracts, and no security of tenure, fewer paid holidays and every reason to kow-tow to management. But the constant in all of this is that alienation is at the core of our challenge. The fundamental workers right must be that of benefitting from the value of their labour. That means we need to restore public ownership of public services. We need to keep CalMac in public hands, we need to bring the railways back into public hands. We need more worker ownership – more cooperatives, and much less private equity, privatised and owned by billionaires.

I was proud to help develop a Right to Cooperate policy for the Greens. This would allow workers to ballot on an employee buy-out, backed by a national investment bank. They would then have a right to buy the business and run it as a workers cooperative. This is the sort of policy that could have transformed the Ineos dispute. It puts the right to benefit from work back where it belongs, with the workers. It makes the workers more important than Jim Ratcliffe. It addresses alienation.

The most fundamental workers right and a key human right is the right to the benefits of your labour. The memory of Jimmy Reid demands we take this seriously, and that is my message to you tonight.

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