Trade unions, the church and modern slavery – speech by the Bishop of Derby

On 19th November 2015 the House of Lords debated a motion from Labour Peer Lord Foulkes of Cumnock “That this House takes note of the role of trade unions in a democracy and their contribution to the general economic wellbeing of the nation.” The Bishop of Derby, Rt Revd Alastair Redfern, spoke in the debate about the historic connection between trade unions and the churches, today’s ‘non-joining’ culture and the role unions can play in combating modern slavery. The speech can also be watched online, here.


Derby 191115c

The Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for this timely and important debate, and for his introduction to it. I want to say a little about the context in which we are having the debate and then make one or two points about the future of the trade union movement. As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, hinted, the trade union movement as we know it came out of chapels and churches and concern for the welfare of human beings in the world of work. We face similar challenges. If I may, I shall name some of the challenges that face not just churches but trade unions.

We live in what I call a non-joining culture. People want their rights and services in their lives but there is less energy to join and put your back to the wheel to make it happen. As people do not join and our numbers go down, there are fewer people to take up this important work. That is a real challenge for the trade union movement, as it is for the church, not least as the world of work gets more complex. We need more energy, more wisdom and more contribution from the experience of those in the world of work.

A second part of the context that intrigued me and which I want to name is that, in researching this, I discovered that the trade unions are relatively strong in their base in middle-income employees and in the professions. That is very much like the Church of England, if I may say so. We face a similar task in terms of people on the front line of the world of work in poor conditions—how to be alongside, encourage and support them.

The last bit of the context is about public perception. People think the church is about pitching up to a building on a Sunday. They think that trade unions are about having a fight about wages through strikes that cripple everybody else’s lifestyle. The public perception is very wrong. In Derby, where I work, trade unions are involved in some of the most creative and important work in the community, supporting and paying for community workers in deprived areas. They have been involved in helping churches and other voluntary groups respond to the food crisis on the ground, using their resources, contacts and expertise in partnership to make a difference to people in need in deprived areas. That story needs talking up. That is the base to build on and to encourage.

I will name two things that trade unions are and have been about, which should be the pillars on which their future health depends. The first is interest. Trade unions have always represented the interests of their members, but, as I said, the method is often perceived to be confrontational. When there were strikes in the 1860s the Guardian, which was not a left-wing paper but a church paper in those days, had a very interesting article pointing out that strikes and confrontation were in the interests of nobody. They were not in the interest of the employer, the employee or the public. If unions are to represent the interests of people, it has to be done by way of partnership, where people from different angles and views can participate and make a difference together. There is a responsibility on the unions as well as on employers, and on the public in our attitude, to challenge too simple a view of confrontation and to look for common ground. There is a shared interest that unions have to explore and step into with businesses and the public.

The second area in which unions have developed concerns identity. Historically, workers were hands—that was the word, “hands”, just a bit of a hand to help something happen. I was privileged to be part of the Joint Committee on modern slavery, examining where human beings are still commodities today. Actually, zero-hours contracts are not too different from people being in slavery, in a sense. There is a terrible way in which people are being treated as hands and commodities now, not just historically.

When the Government helped shape the then Modern Slavery Bill, the Minister’s argument was rightly that businesses have to take a lead in shaping a business culture that is accountable through its auditing to ensuring that human beings are treated not like commodities but as part of the business in a responsible way. For that to happen, the workers and people in work need representation in the process of what the business audit is about, how it works, how it operates and what it is trying to achieve. Some noble Lords may have noticed that the Pope produced an encyclical earlier this year, Laudato Si’, which brings together the issue of slavery and sustainable economic and environmental development—that is, we are commodifying not just the planet but people. We need joined-up practices to audit business practice to see where not just the planet and the environment but people are being commodified, what that experience is about and how to challenge and change it. That can be done only through partnership—through different voices being in the mix—not through confrontation.

The Modern Slavery Act produced the anti-slavery commissioner. I am privileged to chair his reference group. Some noble Lords may have received his first strategic plan, which was published this autumn. It calls on businesses and trade unions to work together to challenge the commodification of human beings in the workplace. That cannot be done by business alone. It needs the representation and all the skills that unions have to get alongside people, to hear what is happening to them, to articulate it and to put it into the mix. As we develop better business audit systems, we must have the voice of those in work.

The Gangmasters Licensing Authority makes the same plea for businesses and unions to work together. It highlights specific areas of economic activity that have a desperate need for this partnership. It highlights agriculture, construction and hospitality, where there is not only a lot of technical slavery and a lot of very unsupportive work practices. We desperately need unions to help some of the most vulnerable in the workforce to have a voice and to make a contribution to business audit, business planning and business performance.

There is an enormous, vital and necessary future for the historical trade union movement to be alongside people in work and to be in partnership with business.

We are at a stage where businesses are looking at a social and sustainable audit practice, trying to be socially responsible. Business needs the contribution of those who represent people in the workplace. I invite the Minister to comment not only on how we encourage businesses to have sustainable audit, but on how the Government can encourage the participation of those who listen to and represent the workers, and help the far from satisfactory experience of many in the workforce at the lower end of the scale, to be taken seriously and tackled creatively.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Neville-Rolfe) (Con): [extract]… I am pleased also to talk about unions and their role in the modern economy. We have heard many examples of how unions help working people prosper in our society, in particular in an excellent speech from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby. I was struck by the parallel that he sought to draw with the church, including the challenge of the non-joining culture. He talked also of good partnership and the importance of stamping out modern slavery. That is an area where the Government, with the help of this House, have made radical changes. From October, the Modern Slavery Act has provided law enforcers with additional tools, including the two new civil orders, and the anti-slavery commissioner. I commend the right reverend Prelate’s own contribution in this area…

…Trade union members also participate in the many voluntary roles which help create cohesive communities—a point that was brought out so well by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Labour): [extract]…what was unexpected was that I, as a heathen, agreed with everything that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby said. It was an encouraging speech—one of the best in the debate. I have many times spoken about partnership and there is an interesting comparison between the church and the trade union movement. He raised the interesting issue of the non-joining culture, from which all organisations suffer. I am hinting to him that that might in itself might be the subject for a debate, because it is a worry for all who are trying to build up democracy.


%d bloggers like this: