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If employers want a war, they'll get one

AGENDA Viewpoint

This is no time to be fighting about the national agreements, writes Phil Willis

A FEW weeks ago employers uncharacteristically declared war on our national agreements.

New proposal documents, devoid of any detail, were placed before the various committees. The engineering construction section was told the Naeci was too expensive to remain sustainable and must be replaced, the electricians were asked to accept a number of changes to the JIB agreement, including relaxation of rule 17, permitting a much larger influx of agency workers to the current directly employed ratios.

Nearly all the suggested changes to current national agreements were in relation to labour issues and shop stewards were simply expected to concur. Not so.

What is strange is that this onslaught comes at a crucial time, with the Olympics looming. Why would employers wish to pick such mammoth fights at this juncture? Defenders of the Naeci, JIB and H&V are all perplexed as to why the employers have chosen right now to have the fight of the century. The workers as always intend to defend what they have and are determined to lose no ground, while the employers seem hell bent on chasing increased productivity.

Let's boil the employers' complaints down to straightforward language. Their position at present is to set a massive decoy and throw the book at the workers and their unions - tear up all the national agreements and relax the ratios, allow huge increases in agency labour and swamp sites with cheap migrant labour.

The tactic appears to be to throw all three issues at the workers and then let them believe that they have scored victories on points one and two.

But what the employers really wanted all along (but dare not say so) is that they desperately want to win only the last point. Yes, migrant labour appears to have become the employers' new holy grail.

Each time new national agreements are mooted by the employers' side, there is always an opening gambit somewhere in the new proposals about UK skills shortages and the need for a more f lexible labour bank. The answer is always 'use m igrant labou r'.

What they mean is use cheap migrant labour.

UK workers need to tread very carefully. If they criticise this practice, they are labelled xenophobic. In truth they have no problem working shoulder to shoulder with their overseas brothers as long as they receive national rates of pay and the same terms and conditions.

But this would completely obliterate the objective of employers, who are looking to cut labour costs.

Employers are so determined that they have already despatched the agencies to recruit from the Eastern Bloc. Meanwhile Tony Blair refuses to fully implement the posted workers directive, which would deliver complete equality for all workers.

A recent study found that labour productivity in the UK compares favourably with both the USA and the rest of Europe. UK workers are committed to their work, are productive, competitive and safe.

As the employers, unions and workers battle it out, let's hope employers takes some time to ref lect upon the fact that they invoked this war and to ask whether it really was worth it. On this occasion it has not been a workers' offensive; far from it.

The national agreements have stood us in good stead for the past 25 years; they have maintained peaceful industrial relations and a sense on ongoing goodwill and co-operation. If the employers want a war, they can have it. But at what price? Eventually the migrant workers will get wise to exploitation and the cycle of strife will begin all over again.

Phil Willis is a shop steward for Amicus, working for Watson Steel on Heathrow T5.