Let's create a modern set of minimum labour standards to protect Scottish workers from exploitation

It will be a happier new year than expected for some of the people working through the chilly night forecast on the 31st. Edinburgh’s annual Hogmanay celebration is one of the events that gives Scotland’s capital a global prominence, with visitors and locals joining together to see in the new year. But after budget cuts from the local council, the commercial organisers of the event decided to recruit volunteers to take on what had previously been paid roles, as ‘Hogmanay Ambassadors’.

Underbelly, the company behind this decision, should have been all too aware of the reaction this would provoke. It’s not news to anyone that austerity has enabled a huge amount of labour exploitation, from zero hour contracts to unpaid trial shifts, from quietly illegal practices to the legal but grim reality of static poverty wages with no prospect of advancement.

My Green colleagues in Edinburgh were among many who challenged the Underbelly decision, and in particular the hard work of Unite the Union, STUC and the Better than Zero campaign can’t be underestimated. Thanks to them, at least some of those being recruited will receive a wage for their work.

Yet even managers and supervisors are still only being given a commitment to the Living Wage. The implication is clear, that work below this level can still be paid poverty wages, if at all.

It’s by no means the only example of labour exploitation that has surfaced over the festive season; at this time of year people are particularly vulnerable to sharp practices by greedy employers.

Many people saw the angry reaction online when it was disclosed that Wagamama, a chain of noodle restaurants, was threatening its staff with disciplinary action if they took sick-leave. This clearly illegal action resulted in many people expressing support for the staff being exploited, as well as some people just worried about their own risk of catching a bug if they ate there. When this combination of solidarity and self-interest reached critical mass the company backtracked, blaming a single local manager. 

Any chain of this size should be taking responsibility for ensuring that managers support their staff instead of persecuting them. If this kind of flagrant abuse is taking place, how much more covert pressure must there be for people not to exercise their basic rights at work, but without the hard evidence ending up on Twitter?

This week it has been reported in Falkirk that B&M stores have let a whole batch of newly recruited staff go… on Christmas Eve! Sacked workers there have complained that they were taken on to help set up a new store, told they were on permanent contracts, and then dumped by the company without any prior notice. I can only imagine the impact of that, on Christmas Eve, especially for someone with a family who had thought this new job represented a bit of hope for the new year. 

Then there were the reports of yet more abuses at Amazon, with near-impossible targets to be met, pressure to work extra shifts, and once again action taken against those who were ill.

Whether giant chain stores and global brands like these, or more local businesses which adopt sharp practices simply because that’s how the market operates, it’s clear that today’s labour standards are woefully inadequate to protect people from exploitation. The Scottish Government has at least made an effort to promote good practice, with the ‘Business Pledge’. It remains voluntary, only covers a small range of issues, and take-up is low. But it’s a start. Yet among the Brexit Ultras, there are still regular calls to rip up what protections people do have once the UK has freed itself of the civilising influence of Europe.

If we’re going to find ways to protect workers in Scotland from this threatening future, we need to recognise that this is an issue which should unite people on both sides of Scotland’s constitutional debate. There are those who have criticised Labour for raising these issues, when they were opposed to devolving employment law. I still think they were wrong on that, and I’ll keep challenging them on it. But if agreement can be found between pro and anti-independence voices on the actions that are still possible now, we mustn’t lose the opportunity.

So here’s a challenge – both for the SNP to act in government and for Labour to offer real support from opposition if they can do so – let’s build on the Business Pledge and create a full, modern set of minimum labour standards for Scotland. And though we can’t yet make them legally binding, let’s stop every form of taxpayer support for companies that fall short. No loans, no grants, no tax breaks, no procurement advantages, no promotion of any kind. Let’s give the leadership that our troubled economy needs.

This article first appeared in the National