In light of the news last week that the UK Government has passed a new law that will overrule the Trade Union (Wales) Act, we will today, return to the topic of devolution to examine whether Wales now needs its’ own Bill of Rights to protect fundamental human and worker’s rights.
In order to protect the rights of workers in Wales to strike, the Welsh Government enacted legislation that was given royal assent in 2017. The law prohibited devolved Welsh public authorities from using agency workers to cover the duties of staff engaged in industrial action.
Following on from the impact of the UK wide rail strikes earlier this month, the UK Government has now introduced a law that makes it easier for businesses to employ temporary agency workers during industrial action.
This rather defeats the object of striking – the purpose of which is to cause temporary disruption in an effort to uphold workers’ rights and is often an essential bargaining tool for negotiation.
This law also affects workers’ bargaining positions in Wales.
Whatever anyone may think of the disruption caused by industrial action, Welsh postmodern history is steeped in the tradition of upholding workers’ rights, from the Merthyr Riots of 1831 to the Great Penrhyn Quarry Strike of 1900 – 1903. The latter was founded on safe working conditions inasmuch as fair pay.
However, in an act that has been deemed “brazen” by one Plaid Cymru MP, it is now clear that the law passed by the UK Government will supersede the Wales Trade Union Act, which was designed to protect the integrity of industrial action.
What’s more, the UK Government has gone further, raising the maximum that courts can award against a trade union for “unlawful” strike action, from £250,000 to £1 million.
Such developments should trouble all workers, particularly during a cost of living crisis where only last week, the Office of National Statistics reported pay increases of 7.2% in the private sector and 1.5% in the public sector in the three months leading up to May 2022.
When adjusted for inflation, this represented a 3.7% drop in real wages – the highest drop in 21 years.
Given the crisis facing the country at present, it is noteworthy that the issue of industrial action is being given such precedence, rather than doing more to alleviate the cost of living.
Indeed, in the coming months and years, we may expect further strikes across the public sector.
While here in Wales, we cannot act to protect workers across the UK, Welsh Government should act to protect workers’ rights.
Furthermore, given calls to abolish the Human Rights Act in the UK, we should also be fearful of any action that may curtail broader human rights.
Indeed, Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville-Roberts has already pointed out that the Human Rights Act is woven into Wales’ constitutional settlement.
Any changes to the Act which could undermine equality and fundamental rights (including those that apply to workers), should at the very least, require approval from all devolved nations within the UK.
While the Welsh Government has suggested it would explore the possibility of “incorporating UN Conventions into Welsh law”, thereby, potentially leading to the creation of a Welsh Bill of Rights”, which could enshrine the right to “self-determination” in the process, this should now be made a matter of priority to safeguard devolution, human and workers’ rights in the country, otherwise legislation enacted in, and for the people of Wales, becomes a moot point.
This is an article written by Maria Pritchard of Yes Milford Haven and published in the Pembrokeshire Herald newspaper on 29.07.2022