Britain risks turning the clock back to the working conditions of the Victorian age unless unions have greater powers to organise and negotiate, Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary, said. Without a shift in the balance of power from employers to unions the UK would face rising inequality and insecurity at work.
There were 3.7 million people in insecure work, and 1.85 million self-employed people earning less than the minimum wage.
Despite the recent pick-up in earnings, it said workers were still facing the longest pay squeeze for 200 years.
The share of economic output going to wages had declined from an average of 57% in the three decades after the second world war to 49% in 2018.
The TUC said anti-trade union laws and industrial change had resulted in union membership and collective bargaining coverage falling – from 54% and over 70% in 1979 to just 23% and 26% respectively in 2018.
O’Grady said: “We’re at risk of going back to 19th-century working conditions. Millions of workers have no control and no voice at work, with increasing numbers stuck on low pay, zero-hours contracts, and in sham self-employment.
“We urgently need to reset the balance of power in our economy and give people more of a say about what happens to them at work. We know that collective bargaining is the best way to raise wages and improve conditions – so let’s expand it across the whole workforce.”
O’Grady said Britain needed to have a debt reality check. “We need to rebuild family finances or we are stuffed. This has always been the canary in the mine.
“This is not about people splashing the cash. It is about paying for the basics. It is about wages still not back to where they were before the crash and prices in the shops going up.”
The TUC general secretary said that a hard Brexit would hit poor people first and hardest.
“Michael Gove is talking about bumps along the road but they will be earthquakes for those drowning in debt who haven’t got a magic money tree at the bottom of the garden.” O’Grady said that many of those who voted leave in the referendum did so because of frustration about low wages, insecurity and zero-hour contracts and “uber-globalisation”, which had seen “a shift in power and wealth to a tiny minority at the top while everybody else had to do with the crumbs.”
Low wages are linked to unsecured borrowing hitting record levels, with one in five families stuck in problem debt. Unsecured debt per household stood at £15,880 in the first quarter of 2019, up £1,160 on a year earlier. Young people were disproportionately likely to be in debt, the TUC said, with 70% of 18-34 year-olds having a type of unsecured debt compared to 33% of the over-65s.
In addition to a £10-an-hour minimum wage and a ban on zero-hours contracts, the TUC is seeking: