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TUC backs BECTU on freelance safety

John Handley speaking at TUC Congress 2014 on H&S protection for self-employed workers

9 September 2014

Delegates to the TUC Congress have supported a BECTU call for safety laws to continue protecting freelancers.

The unanimous vote came after Congress heard from more than six unions about the government's gradual erosion of health and safety rules in UK workplaces.

BECTU's concern is a proposal, due to be debated in the House of Lords in October, for self-employed freelancers to be exempted from all health and safety legislation, unless their industry or activity is on a "prescribed list" held by ministers.

Freelancers exempt from protection

In the entertainment industry, freelancers carrying out electrical work, handling explosives, or building scenery, will still be covered by the law, but almost everyone else will be exempted, raising fears about corner-cutting on health and safety. 

Speakers in the debate credited the UK's workplace safety regime for dramatically reducing deaths and injuries since its introduction 40 years ago, although industrial diseases were still prevalent and affected hundreds of thousands of workers.

'Health and safety should not be negotiable'

Supporting a motion that called for health and safety legislation to apply to all self-employed workers, BECTU NEC member John Handley said: "Health and safety should not be negotiable, and the Health and Safety at Work Act is the only piece of legislation that protects all working people including the self-employed. No one should go home from work in an ambulance or a coffin".

"No one should go home from work in an ambulance or a coffin".

BECTU also supports the creation of "roving safety representatives", who could take on the legal powers of appointed workplace safety reps in situations where most of the workforce are freelance, as is common in the entertainment industry. This would enable union interventions in settings where self-employed members currently have no rights to conduct inspections, or raise health and safety concerns with their engagers.

Freelance issues also came up in a TUC debate, where BECTU and the NUJ reported on a joint communiqué agreed at a meeting of global media unions, employers, and government representatives organsised by the International Labour Organisation earlier in the year.

Rights for every worker

In May, the ILO's Global Dialogue Forum on the Media and Culture Sector agreed that fundamental principles and rights should apply to all workers, regardless of their employment status.

Speaking in the debate, BECTU's assistant general secretary Luke Crawley said: "We should welcome this development because, for the first time, the ILO is recognising that freelance and atypical workers in the media should be treated in the same way as other workers, and are entitled to the same fundamental principles at work."

Luke recalled that the forum had seen "long hard arguments" between the union side and initially hostile employers and government representatives, but progress had eventually been made.

The NUJ and BECTU called on the TUC to use its influence at a full meeting of the ILO in November 2014 to push for implementation of the principles agreed by the Media Global Forum.

Other motions

Congress supports the call for the TUC to lobby on behalf of freelance workers, and also backs a BECTU motion on the need for ethical procurement practices in unions and other labour movement organisations, aimed at favouring companies and supply chains where unions were recognised for collective bargaining.

On the last day of TUC Congress in Liverpool, BECTU and the Musicians' Union will be asking for the audio-visual and cultural sectors to be kept out of trade talks between the European Union and the USA. Both unions are concerned that the framework of state support, including tax breaks, for the cultural industries could be at risk if the US pushes for more open markets in the sector.

Congress is due to debate the motion on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership on Wednesday morning 10 September, and is likely to call for the talks to be halted amid fears that the NHS and other public services could be forcibly opened up to private sector involvement, and for-profit companies might be given a legal right to enter the market despite any resistance by individual EU states.

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