When addressing the Annual Conference of the Scottish Pensioners Forum in Glasgow City Chambers tomorrow, (14.15 hrs 7 June 2016), Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) General Secretary Grahame Smith will say:
“The recent opinion polls suggest that the result of the EU Referendum may be very close. They also suggest that there is a significant difference in view between younger and older people with over 70% of 18-24 year olds in favour of the UK remaining in the EU while only 42% of those over 65 hold the same view.
No one has ever said the EU is perfect.
There is no doubt that the EU needs to reform if it is to better serve the interests of its citizens. However, as our recent Congress agreed, the option that aligns best with our economic and social justice objectives is for the UK to remain a member of the EU.
We won’t shy away from exposing the weaknesses of the EU, and demanding an EU that is more democratic and accountable; that it has a genuine commitment to social justice and puts the interests of workers and citizens at the heart of everything it does; and where its citizens have the opportunity to play a more active role in shaping its decisions.
However, it would be misguided to think that Brexit would allow the UK to escape the EU’s neo-liberal proclivities and the negative impact of globalisation and to retain its national sovereignty; or that any resources repatriated from the EU on exit would be used to reverse austerity - or be invested in the NHS or better state pensions, or to replace the EU funds invested in regenerating some of our most deprived communities; or that UK workers would be offered better minimum standards of employment protection.
When successive UK governments have either been reluctant to improve workers’ rights or have actively sought to reduce them, it has been the EU that has been responsible for the legislation that has enhanced employment protection.
Agency workers, part time and temporary workers, and migrant workers all have better employment protection because of the EU.
We have minimum standards for maternity and paternity leave and pay; we have rights to paid holidays; to limits on how many hours it is safe to work; we have rights over redundancy and access to information from employers, to be treated equally, and to work in safe and health workplaces.
Being members of the EU doesn’t prevent us improving on the minimum standards set at an EU level and of course as unions we have achieved better than the minimum through collective bargaining with employers.
But remember, these rights which came from the EU were often opposed tooth and nail by the UK government and if they did not exist or were taken away, millions of workers in the UK would be much worse off and vulnerable to exploitation.
Little has been said about this recently by those in favour of leaving the EU because they know that they can’t win if they can’t convince working class people to support them. However, many supporters of Brexit have often in the past claimed that a benefit of withdrawal would be that British business would be relieved of the requirements to abide by minimum employment standards as well as minimum standards of environmental and consumer protection.
There is a real danger that if we do vote to leave, these minimum standards of employment protection will be eroded.
Priti Patel, a Tory Employment Minister campaigning for Brexit, has at least been quite honest about this. She has said she would like to “halve the burden of the EU social and employment legislation”.
But what has really disturbed me about the tactics of the Leave campaign has been the way it has resorted to peddling myths about migration in an attempt to win over working people by suggesting, quite wrongly, that we are in danger of being overrun my migrant workers who will take our jobs.
Let’s put some things straight.
Migrant workers are net contributors to the public purse.
Migrant workers use fewer services than the average person.
Migrant workers don’t take our jobs.
As migration has increased unemployment in Scotland has continued to fall.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems. Often migrant workers are vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. That is why we need to organise them not shun them. And local authorities need to plan better for the services they provide not just for migrant workers but for all citizens. The availability of affordable housing is a problem for migrants and non-migrants alike.
However, given the net contribution made by workers from elsewhere in the EU; given the need for the Scottish population to grow to meet the challenges of our demography and the fact that, thankfully, we all are expected to live longer, we should welcome migrants not demonise them. The fact that many in the Leave campaign use EU migrant workers as scapegoats for our obvious economic failings, is a consequence of their unwillingness to admit the failure of the neo-liberal, austerity driven, tax cutting, deregulating policies that they support.
It is not EU migrants or our membership of the EU that is the cause of our economic problems or will cause further economic problems in the future.
It is the unwillingness of successive UK governments to properly invest in our public services, including affordable housing, to invest in our social and economic infrastructure, to support businesses to invest for the long term to enable then to grow and support people to improve their skills.
Blaming migrant workers is a very convenient distraction for those, who for ideological reasons, want to retain the economy as it is currently organised, with wealth and power in the hands of hedge fund managers and multi-national corporations rather than in the hands or ordinary people. With reformed structures, more transparent and inclusive decision making, and progressive political leadership we can change the EU.
We can sweep away the corrupt and self-serving rules that allow the rich to rig the game in their favour; And we can establish a renewed social Europe that replaces the politics of greed and austerity with the politics of aspiration and hope, built on social justice, equality and a positive vision for the future of Europe.
There is a lot at stake on 23 June.
As trade unionists, it is not in our nature to shirk a challenge, and I for one hope that we don’t decide to opt out of the EU and opt out of the challenge of reforming the EU for the benefit of workers across Europe and beyond.