Business

Workers must not pay the price of Brexit, says TUC

(L to R) Ruth Davidson, Sadiq Khan, Frances O'Grady Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Frances O'Grady (r) appeared alongside Ruth Davidson (l) and Sadiq Khan at the live BBC pre-referendum debate

With politicians and the business world still grappling with the outcome of the EU referendum, it's little wonder that Brexit will dominate the forthcoming Trades Union Congress which kicks off in Brighton on Sunday.

"It's our first Congress post the Brexit vote so we want people focused on jobs, workers' rights and investment, because we are very clear that workers mustn't pay the price," says the TUC's general secretary Frances O'Grady.

In the run-up to the vote, Ms O'Grady was a prominent voice for the Remain camp, even taking part in the BBC's Great Debate at Wembley Arena.

"I've played Wembley," she jokes. "I don't think they'll be inviting me back!"

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Trades unions are worried about Brexit. Many fear that workers' rights will be sacrificed as the government seeks to entice investment into Britain in the years ahead.

"Workers have to have a voice at the table," Ms O'Grady adds, before saying she believes so many people in traditional Labour communities voted to leave the EU because "they felt shafted, it was one hell of a protest vote".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Many trade unionists fear that workers' rights will be sacrificed as the UK prepare to leave the EU

"I was going around factories where it was clear that there was a Brexit presence and in some surprising areas, where the implications of the vote and future investment and jobs was pretty clear. People felt let down."

In the wake of the vote she says there needs to be a common response to a massive challenge.

And she points to the potential for some interesting "alignments", highlighting the government's new enthusiasm for industrial policy.

"Any industrial strategy worth its salt has got to deliver better jobs, better pay and a plan for the future," she says.

Ms O'Grady has already met Business Secretary Greg Clark who she found "an enthusiastic listener".

And in the coming weeks she plans to meet Prime Minister Theresa May - who criticised soaring executive pay and promised worker representation in the boardroom during her election campaign.

Image copyright PA
Image caption When Theresa May took office she promised to give people who were "working around the clock" more control over their lives

"It's interesting that a Conservative prime minister is looking at corporate governance reform to give workers a voice at the top of a company. It suggests to me that the fault lines are changing."

Young people

She sees another potential alignment with good employers who are concerned about the growth of casualisation and insecure working practices.

She praises the work of the Unite union in highlighting conditions at Sports Direct. This week the firm said it would put a workers' representative on its board and offer shop workers guaranteed hours instead of zero-hours contracts.

And at next week's Congress, the TUC will launch a new initiative to put firms under the spotlight and reach out to young people who are on the front line of casualisation.

"We are not satisfied that any worker should not know whether they will be able to pay their bills at the end of the week, because they don't know how many hours they are going to work," she says.

The TUC says that young people tend to be more concentrated in sectors including retail, care and hospitality which are known for insecure employment and where firms are often resistant to union recognition.

"We have a real opportunity to reach people on a vast scale and shame those who are exploiting young people. They need to be named and shamed." she says.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Frances O'Grady took over as TUC general secretary at the start of 2013

Meanwhile, many union reps heading to Brighton will travel by Southern Rail, which has been the focus of strike action called by the RMT union in a dispute over plans to cut the staff on trains.

Ms O'Grady says the TUC backs them and argues that many passengers don't want to see staff cuts, particularly the elderly, disabled or mums with kids.

She believes "the railway is safer in all sorts of ways by having those staff on trains" and that it would save taxpayers money to bring the railways under public control.

Labour shadow

But will the current Labour leadership campaign overshadow the Congress?

Several of the major unions including Unite, Unison and the CWU are backing Jeremy Corbyn, but the GMB and the shopworkers' union Usdaw are among those supporting Owen Smith.

The result of the election will be known on 24 September.

Mr Corbyn is expected to speak at a private union dinner in Brighton on Monday night and he also has a rally in the town the following evening.

"What I hope Congress will be, is a bit of a break from that circus," says Ms O'Grady, while remaining tight-lipped on where she will be casting her vote.

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