HC Deb 19 November 1999 vol 339 cc316-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Betts.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Alan Keen (Feltham and Heston)

It gives me great pleasure to speak about the implementation of the Employment Relations Act 1999, and I can give no better example of the difference that it will make than that provided by a dispute in my constituency.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Competitiveness on his relatively new appointment; it is the first time that he has been at the Dispatch Box when I have spoken. I have a great deal of contact with many of his former colleagues in the Communication Workers Union, and when I told them that he was doing very well in his job as a Minister, especially in dealing with employment relations, they sent a message. At first I thought that it said, "Well, we always thought that he must be good at something," but then I realised that they did not mean that. I am sure that they really meant, "He must be really good at something like that"—and I am sure that he is.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra) will be able to say a few words before the Minister replies, and I am also pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) has offered his full support, although he cannot be here because he has a prior engagement. Many of his constituents are affected by the dispute.

The case that I shall use to illustrate the benefits of part of the Act is the current dispute taking place in my constituency close to Hatton Cross, just outside Heathrow airport. Tomorrow, Saturday 20 November, will mark one year since that long and difficult dispute started with the dismissal of 273 members of the Transport and General Workers Union for holding a one-day strike.

The strike was an official and lawful dispute, and the union and the members had jumped through hoops to ensure that they complied fully with all legislation on industrial action. Yet a legal loophole was available, and the company, LSG Lufthansa Skychefs, took advantage of it and sacked all the strikers. That loophole will be closed when the Act comes into effect in April, and strikers in lawful disputes will be protected for eight weeks from unfair dismissal. It will never again be so easy for irresponsible managers to act in such an arbitrary and unfair way.

Despite all the months that have passed, the strikers, many of whom are my constituents, continue to pursue their dispute and their campaign with dignity, honour, and a determination to win. I am proud of their conduct in the dispute, and of their strength and their unity. It has been a long and hard struggle, and in such a dispute everyone is affected—the sacked workers, their families, and the wider communities of Cranford, Southall and Hayes. Many families are suffering enormous hardship, risking their homes and now facing winter fuel bills again, and life out in the cold on the picket line.

For the employer it is almost business as usual: the company immediately replaced the sacked strikers with a mixture of agency, short-term contract and permanent staff. One year after it sacked an entire work force its new employees are saying that they are suffering the same treatment as the others—promises on pay remaining unfulfilled, changes to rostering and poor management attitude. Those are the features that started the dispute in the first place.

The one-day strike on 20 November was an action of last resort, following months of negotiations on proposals to introduce flexible working patterns. The employees had agreed to try out the new system on a trial basis in exchange for a deal on sharing the savings, but the negotiations on the productivity deal broke down, despite the use of conciliation by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service.

The employers failed to honour the status quo agreement, then they failed to deliver the promised 1 per cent. pay increase. Finally, they refused to go to arbitration. Only then did the union ballot for industrial action, for which there was a large majority: 75 per cent. were in favour.

Within hours, couriers worked their way round the Heathrow area delivering letters of dismissal. As that happened, other union members came out in support, and met the same fate. The final count was 273 dismissals. After that, numerous efforts were made by the TGWU to arrange talks with Lufthansa Skychefs, through ACAS, through myself and through many other concerned parties. Those efforts were rebuffed and the company offered jobs back, but only on the basis that employees accepted the imposed terms—and, of course, with a timetable that victimised the most active trade union members.

The climate of industrial relations was anything but fair in the months leading up to the dispute. Only this summer, three race discrimination cases were settled by the company following separate incidents of racial discrimination. Nothing that the group of sacked strikers has done warrants such behaviour by a responsible employer.

Lufthansa Skychefs is part of a multinational corporate giant. One of the key owners is Lufthansa German Airlines, which in turn is part owned by the regional German Government in Westphalia. Lufthansa German Airlines promotes social partnership and dialogue, but it appears that that applies only in Germany and not in the United Kingdom. Strong employment rights and national consensus about the value of partnership at work mean that a dispute of such scale and duration would never be permitted in Germany.

In Britain, even though our Government promote fairness at work, workers still face managers who are reliving previous decades, during which the Government of the day were ruthlessly bent on destroying employee and trade union rights. It is clear that our Government's work has started to change the climate of industrial relations, but the Tory legacy of macho management lingers on—not least, of course, in Lufthansa Skychefs.

I urge hon. Members to join me in condemning the actions of Lufthansa Skychefs in failing to show any commitment to settling the dispute, and in calling on it to negotiate on the right that my constituents still aim to win: to return to their jobs. The dispute is about basic trade union rights—dignity and respect at work. Those are basic human rights. I urge hon. Members to join the boycott of Lufthansa German Airlines and our protest at the owners of the Heathrow kitchens, in order to ensure that this is the first and only anniversary of the dispute.

In December—this will be very familiar to the Minister—I always visit my local sorting office to show my support for the postmen and women in the busy run-up to Christmas. On my way there last December, I called in on the Skychefs picket line. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised to see at least a dozen women and many men already on the picket line at about quarter to 6 on a freezing cold morning. I was also on the picket line on Christmas day, along with more than 100 of the sacked workers.

On such occasions I have never seen anything other than a friendly gathering of people. Obviously, there is some shouting when lorries move in and out of the factory, but that is only to be expected. The people concerned have acted with dignity despite the problems that they have faced. I have been told in the past couple of days that some of the sacked workers have been holding a candle-lit vigil close to the home of Skychefs general manager, Tim Otteridge. I have doubts about the wisdom of such action; every action of course has a reaction, and that is why it is vital that the strike is settled before too long.

It is very easy for those who use Heathrow for holiday and business flights to take for granted the world's busiest international airport. They often fail to realise that it is our equivalent to a coal mine or steelworks. Heathrow provides 55,000 jobs. The people on the picket line and other constituents of mine who live close to Heathrow endure the deafening aircraft noise, air pollution and traffic congestion as their contribution towards this wonderful industry in west London. They accept it with little complaint for the compensation of jobs for themselves and their families, and of security for their children and grandchildren. They deserve better than the treatment handed out by Skychefs management.

I am not speaking in theory; I know the area extremely well. I first moved to Feltham—less than a mile from the Skychefs depot—more than 36 years ago. Immediately before my election in 1992, I worked continuously for 13 years less than half a mile away from the present picket line—directly under the flight path. I know that the sacked strikers deserve better than the treatment that they are receiving. Legislation cannot and, of course, should not be retrospective, but the fact that, under the Act, the action of the Skychefs management would be illegal gives the workers a strong moral right to be reinstated.

It is interesting that, according to the recent financial press, Lufthansa has purchased 15 per cent. of British Midland. I hope that there is some effort to settle the dispute honourably and very soon because, otherwise, we shall have to begin to call for a boycott of British Midland, too. The people around Heathrow would take such a call very seriously because it is our industry, and we do not want to damage it. However, when people become desperate, as they are with Skychefs, desperate action is inevitable.

My main concern is for the sacked strikers, especially because most of them come from the Asian community around Heathrow. A parallel can be drawn with the actions taken in the past by coal miners. The same cohesion is apparent in the Asian community as existed in the mining areas. The loyalty to a cause is very difficult to shift, so any action taken is likely to go on for a long time, as happened in coal disputes in the past.

We must remember that, as a result, people suffer for much longer. It is therefore even more important that we do something about this dispute as soon as we can. People are suffering who will not give in: we must bring the dispute to an end. None of the strikers expect the Government to intervene directly, but we hope that effective pressure—of which this debate is an element—will make a difference.

Finally, the Government deserve some praise. Many people felt that the Employment Relations Act could have provided stronger help for workers and trades unions, but none of the three major disputes in west London in recent years would have arisen had a Labour Government been elected in 1992, rather than in 1997.

The Hillingdon hospital dispute is the longest running of the three, and after four years has still not been settled satisfactorily, even though the tribunals that have been held have found in the workers' favour. Workers have been awarded money and told that they will get their jobs back, but the Granada group—the employers involved—continues to refuse to re-employ them. That strike started when the original contractor reduced pay from £3.50 an hour to £2.50. It, and all the suffering caused to the strikers, could never have occurred if the minimum wage legislation introduced by this Government had been in place four years earlier.

The second dispute took place in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Southall. That dispute was between the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union and the Noons company, and concerned trade union recognition. It was settled early because of the promise of the provisions contained in the 1999 Act. Finally, had the 1999 Act been on the statute book a year ago, the management in the Lufthansa dispute would have been acting illegally when it sacked the workers.

The Government have made a start on rebuilding employment relations legislation. Today's debate is about real people suffering in a real way, and I want the House to give them our support.

2.43 pm
Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall)

I shall be brief, but I want to endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Keen) said. Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the Lufthansa Skychefs dispute, and I abhor the fact that, despite the Government's efforts to foster partnership at work, the company has failed to act in that spirit and has refused to negotiate the reinstatement of the 273 workers sacked for holding a lawful one-day strike.

Lufthansa Skychefs is an American-owned company, employing 37,000 workers worldwide and controlling one third of all aircraft catering in the world. The company has shown clearly that it puts profits before people in the way that it has handled this dispute from the outset. A number of my constituents are among those who have suffered great hardship as a result of the strike, and I continue to wish them every success in their struggle against a clear injustice.

I shall outline what has happened in the dispute since November last year. Following the sackings, I was approached by some of my constituents and last December, I arranged a meeting at the House of Commons. A number of the sacked workers, along with their union representatives, came to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston.

At the time, the union made it clear that there was no demand for a pay increase. The demand was for all those who were sacked to be reinstated, so that talks between management and union officials could resume. Following the meeting, two early-day motions were tabled. The fact that they received 200 signatures shows that hon. Members clearly supported the workers. In the meantime, I received two letters from the general manager of Lufthansa in December, asking for a meeting to discuss the dispute. In view of management's attitude towards the sacked workers, I declined to accept the offer.

Following the passage of the Employment Relations Act 1999, which states that the dismissal of strikers is unlawful during the first eight weeks of a strike and that thereafter the employer must demonstrate that the available conciliation procedures have been followed, I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and brought the dispute to his attention. However, he stated that because the new legislation is not retrospective, there is nothing that the Department can do to intervene.

The Transport and General Workers Union pressed for talks with management on 7 April. Lufthansa accepted moral responsibility for resolving the dispute. In May, after a meeting at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, talks broke down. The following day, Lufthansa issued a statement clearly attempting to discredit the TGWU. In June, to add insult to injury, the London management of Lufthansa, through ACAS, offered six vacancies to the 273 sacked workers.

The TGWU demanded that talks be reconvened, but as no response was received, it proceeded with the launch of the "Don't Fly Lufthansa" campaign. In response to the campaign, the company was forced back to the negotiating table and three more meetings were held, which were concluded on 2 September.

On 8 September, the company submitted a final offer to the TGWU. It contained proposals on re-employment, which improved the number of jobs available immediately, but left the overwhelming majority of those in dispute waiting for an opportunity to apply at an unspecified future date. It also included proposals for severance compensation of £220 for each year of service, only to those who were dismissed. That falls far short of the agreements generally available to workers in the industry, and the offer was firmly rejected by TGWU members.

Last month, I visited the picket line with five other hon. Members. On the picket line I met a number of my constituents, and I am deeply concerned that something should be done for them. Among those workers, there are many women and the loss of jobs has brought great hardship to their families.

I call on my hon. Friend the Minister to condemn the actions of Lufthansa Skychefs, and I urge the Government to back the workers' "Don't Fly Lufthansa" campaign, which is supported by the TGWU and the TUC. The campaign calls on the travelling public not to fly Lufthansa until an agreement is reached to resolve the dispute. There is no doubt that a higher political profile for the dispute is required for it to get the attention that it deserves.

I hope that today's debate will receive substantial coverage so that the general public are made fully aware of the truth about the dispute. Unusually, the media's interest in the dispute has been totally lacking, and I wonder whether that is because the work force involved are all Asian.

2.49 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alan Johnson)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Keen) for his kind remarks, and for the fraternal greetings from my Communication Workers Union colleagues in his constituency.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having obtained the debate on a matter which I know is of considerable interest to him, and to my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra) and for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell), who have been energetic and assiduous in bringing the dispute to the attention of the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston explained, the debate is prompted by the first anniversary tomorrow of the dismissal of more than 270 workers at Lufthansa Skychefs, following a lawfully organised one-day strike.

Before I respond to my hon. Friend's speech, I thank him for his kind remarks about the Employment Relations Act and the other measures the Government have taken to bring partnership, fairness and decent minimum standards to the workplace. Millions of working people are benefiting, or will benefit, from the new rights that we have introduced through the Employment Relations Act, the national minimum wage, the working time regulations, the reduction in the qualifying period for unfair dismissal rights to one year and the rest of our "Fairness at Work" agenda, which comprised 46 measures.

Let me give but three examples. Two and a half million workers will benefit from the introduction of a minimum period of paid annual leave under the working time regulations; up to 2 million workers are expected to benefit from the national minimum wage; and—in a measure that might be of interest to those at No. 10 Downing street—we are increasing statutory maternity leave for 85,000 mothers a year. This is a substantial achievement, of which Labour can be proud.

The main thrust of my hon. Friend's speech was the Skychefs dispute. He will understand why I have to stress that it is not the Government's policy to intervene in industrial disputes, or to be seen to take sides by commenting on the conduct of either side. That is perfectly fair in a free society that has free and independent trade unions. Disputes are a matter for the parties concerned to sort out themselves—with the assistance, if they both agree, of the independent Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. Therefore, it would not be right for me to comment specifically on the whys and wherefores of the Skychefs dispute.

That said, it is a cause of considerable anxiety when disputes drag on. I understand that, as ever, ACAS stands ready to assist. I welcome the efforts being made by my hon. Friend and by the Transport and General Workers Union to promote negotiations aimed at achieving a settlement. I hope that the parties—with or without outside help—manage to arrive at an amicable solution that means that tomorrow will be both the first anniversary and the last.

The Government favour a partnership and non-confrontational approach to employment relations. That approach was the inspiration for our Employment Relations Act, which received Royal Assent just before the summer recess. Among other things, the Act will provide new rights for workers dismissed for taking lawfully organised official strike action, such as occurred at Skychefs last year.

It is already possible for strikers who are selectively sacked to complain of unfair dismissal, but they cannot complain where all the strikers are dismissed. We believe that that is unacceptable. Such dismissals, whether selective or wholesale, are not conducive to good employment relations: they complicate disputes and usually make them much more difficult to resolve. It is no accident that disputes involving dismissals are among the most bitter and intractable. We want to place a greater onus on both sides to resolve disputes without escalating them.

That is why the Act will enable strikers who have been sacked within eight weeks of the start of industrial action to complain that they have been unfairly dismissed; and—if they are willing to return to work—to ask a tribunal to order their reinstatement. We think that eight weeks is the right period in that it allows a reasonable time for the parties to hold constructive negotiations and to explore thoroughly all the options for resolving their dispute—in effect, it provides a cooling-off period.

In addition, to deal with cases where employers simply sit on their hands for eight weeks and then start sacking, the same right to complain of unfair dismissal will apply after the eight weeks if the employer has not followed all reasonable procedural steps to try to resolve the dispute. The right will also apply if the action has ended within eight weeks and the employee is later sacked for taking part.

However, I must emphasise that that is not a one-sided test. All those protections apply only to industrial action that is both official and lawfully organised, as the Skychefs dispute was. Moreover, the Act specifically requires a tribunal, in considering whether a dismissal after eight weeks is fair, to take particular account of whether the employer or the union has complied with procedures established in any applicable agreement, collective or otherwise; whether the employer or the union has offered, or agreed to start or resume, negotiations after the industrial action started; and whether either party has unreasonably refused a request to involve ACAS or other third parties in helping to resolve the dispute through conciliation or mediation. In short, we expect both sides to act fairly and reasonably, and we designed the Act to ensure that it is in their interests to do so.

At the same time, we have been careful to prevent tribunals from becoming involved in the merits of disputes. That is why a tribunal's determination of the fairness or otherwise of dismissals after eight weeks is based solely on the procedural steps taken by the parties. If a tribunal finds that a worker was dismissed unfairly for going on strike, it will be able to make a compensatory award of up to £50,000, in addition to a basic award of up to £6,600, based on the employee's age, salary and length of service.

A tribunal will also be able to consider applications for reinstatement or re-engagement once the industrial action is over. If it decides to issue a reinstatement order and the employer refuses to comply, the employee will be entitled to an additional award of between £5,720 and £11,440 unless the employer can satisfy the tribunal that it was not practicable to comply with the order.

Before we can bring the new rights into force, we intend to revise the rules and procedures of employment tribunals to require tribunals to adjourn proceedings on applications in which the legitimacy of industrial action is being challenged in the courts, and to require pre-hearing interviews in all cases when one of the parties requests that. We aim to have the new rules—and rights—in place by Easter.

The new rights for striking workers are not the only measure in the Act intended to prevent or encourage the amicable resolution of disputes. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston will know that disputes can arise about the recognition of a union for collective bargaining purposes; such disputes can be very bitter. As my hon. Friend said, the TGWU has, in effect, been "de-recognised" by Skychefs following the decision to sack its members. The Act ensures that such disputes can be handled in a sensible and non-confrontational way in future, by means of the statutory recognition scheme. The scheme encourages the parties at every stage to resolve their differences voluntarily, and that is already happening, even before it has come into effect. My hon. Friend mentioned the case of Noons, in which harmonious relations have been established following the signing of a partnership agreement between the GMB and the company.

Of course, there will inevitably be cases in which the parties are unable to sort out their differences. When that occurs, the scheme provides for an expert and independent third party, the central arbitration committee, to resolve recognition disputes. The scheme will come into effect shortly after Easter next year and, by then, we shall have restructured and enlarged the CAC.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Hillingdon hospital strikers' dispute, and rightly said that the national minimum wage would help to remove the worst cases of exploitation through pay—and, indeed, would have prevented the dispute in the first place.

The progressive implementation of the Employment Relations Act is well under way. Like the national minimum wage, the working time regulations and the reduction of the qualifying period for unfair dismissal rights to one year, it is part of a wider agenda to promote competitiveness, partnership and family friendly employment policies, and to ensure that decent, civilised minimum standards operate in the workplace. The measures in the Act will underpin a new culture of partnership at work, and will relegate the outdated and confrontational industrial relations policies of the past to the dustbin where they belong.

Human nature being what it is, we will never succeed in eliminating acrimonious industrial disputes such as the Skychefs dispute, which prompted today's debate; but, through the Employment Relations Act and all the other measures that we have introduced and will introduce over the coming year or so, we have done and are doing much more to move British employment relations into the 21st century.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.