Bill Morris: The only way the CBI is looking is backwards

Increasingly decent workplace rights are viewed by the CBI as barriers to maximising profits
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Approaching trades unionists gathered in Brighton tomorrow will be Digby Jones, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), fresh from his doom and gloom pronunciations that it is workers' representatives who are imperilling the British economy and blocking public services reform.

The Transport and General Workers' Union's call to the Government to recognise that decent employment rights should be intrinsic to a civilised society has clearly rankled the CBI. For the past week it has been on the offensive, protesting loudly that unions are imperilling the UK's economy by voicing concerns that what they see as the "jewel in the crown" of labour flexibility, unions regard as shorthand for insecurity, exploitation and poverty pay.

Yet there is a deafening silence from the CBI when it comes to the gross injustices suffered by working people due to the lack of proper workplace protection. This includes people such as my union's 86 members at Friction Dynamex, ruled by an industrial tribunal to have been unfairly dismissed but then denied compensation because their American boss barged his way through the UK's flawed insolvency laws by going bankrupt, then buying back his liquidated company's assets under a new trading name, and passing the bill to the DTI.

That's the reality of the CBI's vision of flexibility, and it is time it acknowledged loopholes that permit spiv employers to deploy sharp practices. Make no mistake, my union is committed to challenging this. And at this month's Labour conference we will tell the Government to stop "sitting on your hands - and start clamping down on these abuses".

By turning attention to this, the Government is not capitulating to the unions' agenda - as they were accused in headlines after last week's announcement of the establishment of a joint forum on public services reform. Instead, it is doing exactly what a responsible social democratic government should.

Increasingly, social dialogue and decent workplace rights are viewed by the CBI as barriers in the way of maximising profits and shareholder value. But its myopic vision of the 21st century workplace is neither workable nor desirable.

Sadly, while the unions advance a progressive agenda of employment rights that are good for workers, business, society and the economy, the CBI continues to show its true yearning for a backwards employment culture - one which supports a two tier workforce in the name of "flexibility", backs no consultation with workers on their future, promotes excessive hours, sanctions sacking by text message and the closure of employees' pension schemes.

Moreover, dire warnings that employers and unions will grow further apart ring particularly hollow when made by the CBI, the same organisation standing in the way of extending the legal right of union recognition to people today employed in small firms. Their intransigence means that about five million British workers are denied the basic human right of a collective voice and workplace representation. For a modern industrial democracy that is simply unacceptable.

For the past six years, a large space has been reserved on the Prime Minister's lawn for the tanks of big business. They were parked there last week as the captains of industry had the run of Downing Street to pitch their case for even fewer employment protections for workers and, while they were at it, unashamedly angling for a large slice of the public services pie and taking a swipe at the unions in the process.

The truth is the unions are actively engaged in shaping the modernisation process through the newly established public sector forum. And, with landmark agreements such as "Agenda for Change", far from blocking progress, unions are supporting and implementing real reforms for pay and training for thousands of workers.

Perhaps those who make no claim to be a user of public services can be forgiven for not noting the progress made in public service reform. But in a week when Connex wipes out 40 rail services without any consultation, the case for a greater role for the private sector in the provision of our services has no economic or social substance.

And when justice, the law and the British taxpayer are insulted by shady employers who can hire and fire at whim, or cut and run in order to evade their responsibilities, the authority for business to demand special privileges from the Government is absent.

When Mr Jones takes the stand tomorrow he will be listened to with polite respect. All I ask is that this respect is returned to Transport and General members, not just within the conference hall but within their places of work.

The writer is the retiring general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union

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