Social justice – a phrase we hear a lot. But what does it mean? For me, it’s quite simple – it means a fair shout for everyone.
Still, it’s sometimes hard to define, but in one particular area it’s easy – work. Be it equal pay, non-discrimination, health and safety, or workers’ rights, there are many examples of protecting and improving conditions. It’s still not always a fair shout though. Many workers are forced to work under unfair zero-hour contracts, or in the ‘gig’ economy; under the UK Government, younger workers can be discriminated against with a lower statutory minimum wage, despite doing the same job. So there’s still much room for improvement.
This week marks the commencement of Fair Start Scotland; a new employment support service, run by the Scottish Government. Fair Start Scotland has been designed to help those who are furthest from the labour market, to help them find work whilst treating them with fairness, dignity and respect. The new approach will focus on the needs of the individual first and foremost, taking into account strengths and ambitions of the individual. The essence of Fair Work is surely when people feel valued, engaged in their work and fairly rewarded; when workers feel they have a stake in the success of their workplace, and their wider community.
East Kilbride does have good examples of that in large companies like Coca-Cola with demonstrably low staff turnover rates; local firms Novograf and Clansman Dynamics who have chosen employee ownership as the most effective business model; the Furnishing Service which does such excellent partnership work with Sanderson High School. And, many companies large and small that have opted to pay at least the Living Wage to all employees.
I sat on the Smith Commission a couple of years ago to determine what additional powers would come to Scotland following the promises made by the UK Government during the independence referendum debate. I still believe that the biggest missed opportunity of that negotiation was when the other parties wouldn’t back the SNP and the Green Party to devolve employment legislation to the Scottish Parliament. Despite Westminster being in charge of employment law, the Scottish Government does what it can to promote fairness in the workplace.
Through the Fair Work Framework, the Scottish Government also recognises the importance of trades unions as partners, not as opponents. Evidence shows that staff in unionised workplaces are more engaged, and unionised employers more progressive in staff relations. The current UK Government’s Trade Union legislation continues to threaten the capacity of trade unions to deliver the constructive employment relations that can benefit employees and employers alike.
Some years ago, it became apparent that ‘trial shifts’ were increasingly being used by some employers to cover staff shortages and save money. I was powerless to help a couple of constituents who came to me with the issue. What an awful way to treat people! So, I was firmly behind the draft legislation by the SNP’s Stewart McDonald MP to outlaw this practice. Stewart’s Unpaid Work Trials (Prohibition) Bill sought to ensure that when a person took part in a trial period they were to be paid at least the national minimum wage. Sounds fair to me. Unfortunately, Stewart’s Bill was ‘talked out’ in Westminster– an odd practise where MPs opposed to the proposal can speak at an inordinate length to make sure there is no time to conclude the debate and thus enact legislation. Appalling behaviour.
Workers getting a fair shout from the UK Government? I don’t think so.