Scotland needs more powers to protect workers from exploitation

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By a Newsnet reporter

The SNP are calling on the UK Government to devolve matters relating to work and pensions following a report which points to an alarming erosion of vulnerable workers’ rights in Scotland.

A Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) report published on Monday reveals that Scots are being exploited by employers who feel they can treat their employees unfairly because of the recession.

Christina McKelvie, SNP MSP for Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse and convener of the SNP parliamentary backbench trade union group, said today that Scotland is leading the way on employment rights where it has the power to do so, but that Holyrood needs full control over employment rights in order to reverse the erosion of protection for workers.

CAS Head of Policy Susan McPhee said:

“Scottish CAB advisers help thousands of people every year with problems in the workplace. The victims are often low-paid and low skilled, and many of them are un-aware of their rights, so are therefore vulnerable to unfair treatment by rogue employers.

“As a society we might have hoped that workplace exploitation was a thing of the distant past. Sadly, this report shows that many Scots are still being treated unfairly. Examples include illegal changes to contracts, unfair dismissal, low pay, with-held wages and victimisation of those who have tried to demand their rights.

“Most employers are fair, and there are many good organisations which fight for workers rights. But our evidence today shows that there are still some employers who are using the recession as an excuse to mistreat their employees. They feel they can get away with it because workers are terrified of losing their job.

“We all know that work is scarce and nobody who is in a job wants to lose it. But that doesn’t mean employers should be able to take liberties. Indeed, at times like these we feel its more important than ever that workers are treated fairly, with dignity and respect.”

Over the last two years, Scottish CAB advisers dealt with a total of 107,000 cases of unfair employment issues. That’s nearly 150 per day. However, CAS believe that this is only the tip of the iceberg, as most people affected by these issues are too frightened to report them.

Ms McPhee called on the government to introduce a Fair Employment Commission with statutory powers to punish employers who exploit their employees.

Ms McPhee said:

“And to address the problem longer-term, we call today for a Fair Employment Commission – with powers to identify wrongdoing and to punish employers who flout the law and exploit their staff.

“Bad employers make life miserable for their workers, but they also distort the job market. By unfairly reducing their costs they put good employers at a disadvantage, and create pressure for them to adopt similar unfair and illegal practices. It is sad that such employers still exist in Scotland in 2012. They should be rooted out, and made a thing of the past.”

Ms McKelvie noted that the Scottish government does not currently have the powers to take action, as control of many aspects of employment law are powers reserved to Westminster and are determined by the Conservative Lib Dem coalition.  Ms McKelvie commented:

“It is ridiculous that workers are living in fear of losing their jobs to the point where they are being forced to work extra hours or have their contractual terms altered without consultation.

“In Scotland, the SNP is operating every lever at our disposal to create an environment where staff can operate in a workplace free from fear or exploitation.

“We have introduced the living wage for all workplaces under the control of the Scottish Government and encouraged councils across the land to follow suit.

“NHS Scotland was recently held up by Nottingham University as a groundbreaking example of how public sector industrial relations can help improve service delivery.

“In contrast, the Tory-Lib coalition at Westminster, far from seeking to protect workers during the economic crisis, are further eroding basic rights, such as by seeking to introduce upfront fees for access to an employment tribunal.

“The Scottish Government does not have powers it needs to prevent unscrupulous employers from exploiting their staff as it would wish to do.  This report from CAS sends a clear message that vulnerable workers in Scotland cannot trust Westminster to protect them – they need the Scottish Government to have full powers to look after and stand up for employment rights.”