"Same job, same rights and conditions" - something worth fighting for

26 February 2008

Who remembers today the so-called "Warwick agreement", which union leaders hailed as a major victory for workers? This was back in 2004, in the run-up to the 2005 election. Blair had been urged by union leaders to give them "something" they could "sell" to workers in return for asking them to vote for what was probably the most unpopular Labour government ever. This "something" was the "Warwick agreement" - in which Labour promised some vague "new" rights for workers, provided they voted Labour back into office.

Broken promises - again!

One of these promises, however, was clear enough. Blair and Brown pledged to support the adoption of a draft EU directive, aimed at providing equal rights for agency workers. They also promised to get this directive included into British law.

Once Labour was re-elected, Warwick was forgotten. In the EU Council, Blair and Brown threw all their weight against the draft directive - preventing it from being adopted. So that instead of becoming EU law, it has remained a sort of voluntary code of practice that British employers ignore arrogantly, given the backing they have from the government.

As to giving any rights to agency workers in British law, a first private member's bill, which would have given agency workers the same rights as permanent workers doing comparable jobs, succeeded in reaching the Commons' agenda. But it was torpedoed by the government last Summer.

Today, a second bill along the same lines has managed to reach a second reading, with the support of 146 mostly Labour backbenchers.

So far, the government has been cautious not to appear too clearly opposed to this bill. Instead, it is obviously trying to play for time. So, Brown has commissioned a "public enquiry" under George Bain, the former head of the ill-famed "low-pay commission" which engineered today's ridiculously low minimum wage. In other words, Brown intends to kill off the issue, once again.

This amounts to the government giving the bosses a blank cheque to exploit agency workers as they please. Predictably, Labour ministers are bowing to the bosses' vocal opposition to any legislation that would curb their ability to over-exploit at will a whole section of the working class.

It does not need to go their way

And it is indeed a big section. The bosses' figures say that there are up to 1.4m agency workers at work across the country at any time. This means that the total of agency workers is significantly higher than that. But such numbers are hardly surprising, since today, very big employers like BT, BMW or British Airways, employ large numbers of agency workers, regardless of the fact that making all these workers permanent would come at a small price for them compared to their real profits.

And this is not counting the hundreds of thousands more who are not strictly speaking agency workers, but have casual status allowing the bosses to pay them lower wages and to deprive them of their right to a pension or to sick pay or to paid holidays, etc...

We're all casual workers in waiting

Moreover, aren't we all casual workers in waiting? It is so easy to end up in that situation. All it takes is a factory closure, or a "restructuring", (to use the bosses' jargon) to boost shareholders' dividends, or a privatisation drive.

This is why the issue of agency workers' rights and, more generally, the question of what rights are granted to all casual workers concerns the working class as a whole. However, this is not an issue that will ever be settled in the Commons only.

The principle "same job, same rights and conditions", used to be central to the class struggle. But the union machineries and the Labour party, in their frenzy to rub shoulders with the bosses, have long since turned the class struggle on its head.

Today, the only thing that union leaders can think of is to go cap in hand to the Commons, in the hope that some Labour backbenchers will do them a favour by raising the issue, while the Labour leaders make sure that it gets nowhere.

But during the big waves of strikes out of which grew today's unions and the Labour party, more than a century ago, the leaders of the new unions, who were aiming at building a working class party at the time, led large masses of striking workers in the streets and terrified Tory MPs into voting in pro-labour legislation, out of fear for the bosses' profits.

And this is what we need to do, once again. Firstly to stop the bosses playing havoc with our jobs and conditions - legislation will not frighten them, but fear for their profits will. And secondly, to develop the political voice which we have been deprived of for so long - a working class party that does not seek to boost the profits of the capitalists, as the Labour party does, but aims at representing the political interests of working people.