The Labour government showed yesterday the gulf between its own agenda and that of even the most moderate unions when a minister crushed a new law to provide employment protection for millions of temporary and migrant workers.
Many agency workers face discrimination in the workplace and poorer pay, denial of sick, holiday and overtime pay.
But Jim Fitzpatrick, Labour’s minister for employment relations, blocked a private member's bill to give agency workers new rights despite 115 Labour Mps – a third of the party – turning up to back the measure.
The bill was introduced by Paul Farrelly, Labour MP for Newcastle under Lyme, and was backed by the TUC and five big unions – Unison, T&G, Amicus, GMB and the CWU.
Fitzpatrick, who was once a FBU union official, used parliamentary procedure to kill the bill.
He kept speaking until time ran out.
At present British labour law fails to protect agency workers. Legislation to change this was promised in the Warwick Agreement and backed by both Labour and the TUC Conference in 2006
The government has said it will consult with the unions and MPs on limited measures to improve employment conditions for agency workers. But as T& G leader Tony Woodley had said in advance of the debate, “As part of the Warwick [agreement between Labour and the unions] the government agreed to support the EU directive on agency working, the fundamental principle of which is equal treatment.
“In the absence of any progress at EU level we need UK legislation that will ensure this equality. What has been announced falls far, far short of this and will not significantly assist workers who endure abuse or undercutting because the law allows agency workers to be discriminated against on essential matters like pay, sick pay and overtime.
John McDonnell, leftwing leadership contender, said the minister's action made him ashamed to be a Labour MP.
'Deliberately preventing MPs from even having the opportunity to properly debate bills that extend the rights of working people in this country is an absolute disgrace and brings the whole of parliament into disrepute,' he said.
The defeat of the agency workers’ bill meant the trade union freedom bill was not even debated.
Agency workers from all over the country came to parliament last week to tell MPs about their experiences. They told similar stories, about being paid much less than their directly employed counterparts, about having to go to work when ill because they are not entitled to sick pay, about being laid off work – often after many year's of work without notice – and not being able to have proper holidays.
The unions really threw themselves into supporting the agency and temporary workers bill. Labour has treated them as contemptuously over this issue as any Tory government.