Wednesday, 26 April 2017

European Court: Defeat for Worker's Rights

FOLLOWING a decision in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg released this week, campaigners are challenging politicians to provide legal protection to agency workers. The ruling in the case of Smith v. the United Kingdom (Application Number 54357/15) was handed down by ECHR President, Kristina Pardalos, relates to Dave Smith, an engineer from Maldon in Essex, who was one of thousands of construction workers who appeared on the notorious Consulting Association blacklist operated on behalf of the UK's major building contractors.  Smith was blacklisted after he being elected as a safety representative for the construction UCATT (now part of UNITE).

His Employment Tribunal against various companies in the Carillon Group became a test-case for blacklisted workers but the Strasbourg decision has implications far beyond just the construction industry.  At the original Employment Tribunal, the company admitted that their senior managers had provided information to the blacklist because Smith was a union member who had raised concerns about safety issues on their projects.  But the ET found against Smith because as an agency worker he was not covered by UK employment law.  Millions of agency workers are currently excluded from basic employment rights such as unfair dismissal, redundancy and protection from victimization for raising safety issues.    

Smith's legal team appealed the case all the way to the Court of Appeal before it was finally rejected at the Supreme Court.  A submission was made to the European Court of Human Rights arguing that the Consulting Association blacklist conspiracy was a violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which are supposed to apply to everyone not just direct employees.  

Paragraph 36 of the ECHR judgement reads: 
"At the outset, the Court considers that in light of the criminal proceedings pursued against the Chief Officer of the Consulting Association by the Information Commissioner for failing to register as a data controller under the Data Protection Act and the admissions made by the defendant companies in the High Court proceedings, it is clear that the retention of personal data by the CA interfered with the applicant’s Article 8 rights". 
However, because of the campaign led by the Blacklist Support Group alongside the UNITE and GMB trade unions, which resulted in a Select Committee investigation and a multi-million pound settlement in High Court litigation, the ECHR ruled that Smith's case had been 'duly considered' by the British legal system and was therefore declared 'inadmissible'. 

While Smith was paid compensation during the High Court settlement, the ECHR ruling leaves the issue of the second class treatment of agency workers by UK employment law completely unresolved.  If even a blacklisted worker whose human rights have been infringed cannot win legal redress in either the UK Employment Tribunal system or the highest court in Europe, what chance do care workers, teachers or nurses engaged via employment agencies stand?  The current differential treatment of agency workers amounts to a EU sized loophole by which unscrupulous bosses can exploit agency workers with absolute impunity.  

John Hendy QC represented Smith in his test-case and commented on the ECHR decision:
"The use of agency workers and false self employment now deprive several million workers from full employment rights. The use of employment tribunal fees defeats the rights of those workers who do have them. As Dave Smith's case shows these problems cannot be left to the courts: they require urgent and fundamental legislation. The election provides the opportunity to vote on this issue".

After receiving the decision, Dave Smith commented:
"This ECHR decision is a green light to bad employers.  If UK and EU judges either can't or won't protect agency workers. I challenge all political parties in the General Election to commit themselves to extending full employment rights to the millions of workers engaged via employment agencies. In an era of zero hours contracts and casualisation, this is a defining issue for any politician claiming to stand up for workers rights". 

Gail Cartmail, UNITE Assistant General Secretary stated: 
“As this disappointing decision is being digested we know the paucity of legal protection from blacklisting means that third parties are instructing “do not engage” or if an activist slips through the net, dismiss.  Tomorrow is International Worker’s Memorial Day when we will mark 43 construction workers death from April 2015 to April 2016. In the past and today major players in construction have singled out trade union activists for raising legitimate safety concerns.  We need a full Public Inquiry and it is good to know this is a Labour pledge.  Remember the dead and fight for the living.”

UNITE member, Terry Brough, was the only other blacklisted worker to have a case submitted to the ECHR.  His case was ruled 'inadmissible' in September 2016. Brough commented:
"I extend my solidarity, respect and best wishes to Dave and his team in this, his latest involvement in the fight for justice. Blacklisted workers have not achieved justice through the courts: Corbyn should pledge a full public inquiry on the blacklisting scandal".  

Blacklist Support Group

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