Jenny Marra MSP : Progressive Workplace Policies

Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate

13 November 2014

I thank the cabinet secretary and the Scottish Government for bringing this debate to the chamber.

It is important because it centres on progressive workplace policies, which are important because they are about improving people’s working lives.

All of us agree on how important the dignity of work is for our community. I congratulate the former minister Jim Mather and the STUC on producing the working together review and on the hours of work and consultation that they did on it.

Progressive workplace policies are crucial for many reasons.

A central strand that runs through all the suggestions that are made in the report is—as the Government and the Conservatives have touched on—the key theme of productivity.

Productivity is the cornerstone of a progressive workplace policy because it bookends the elements that make a workplace progressive, equal and sustainable.

A progressive workplace policy comes from the need for more efficient and innovative production, and successful production is a result of such progressive policies.

As Paul Krugman said in his book “The Age of Diminishing Expectations”,

 “Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything. A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.” 

The Scottish Government recognises that fact.

It has set a target for Scotland to rank in the top quartile for productivity against our key trading partners in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development by 2017, but at the moment Scotland is still ranked 17th out of 32 countries.

Scotland’s relative position has remained broadly unchanged over the past four years, so a more innovative approach is clearly required.  

The report recognises that and is a good start towards that improvement.

Increasing the productivity of a business means that it can compete on high skill levels and wages in a race to the top, which creates the middle-income jobs that we need to tackle the cost-of-living crisis.

The previous UK Labour Government made good progress on closing the productivity gap, but there is still a great deal left to do, and Scotland and the UK have roughly the same ranking in the OECD.

The Labour Party whole-heartedly endorses that key aspect of the report and hopes that it will be carried forward by the Scottish Government.  

We commit to implementing the recommendations in the report if we are elected to government in Holyrood in 2016.

 Some of the recommendations in the report cover equality.

 Gavin Brown (Lothian) (Con): For clarity, is that a commitment to implement all 30 recommendations in the report?

The Deputy Presiding Officer: I can give Jenny Marra time back for that intervention.

Jenny Marra: Yes, it is.

That is a commitment to implement the working together review.

Equality is crucial, as we still witness a pay gap.

Despite the improvements that were reported on yesterday, it is still a challenge for women to get the skills, training and decent-waged jobs that they need.

We have debated that many times in the chamber.

The equality representatives recommendation in the report is a good step forward.

The same applies to a fair employment framework.

I was pleased that the cabinet secretary said that she will listen to all parties on that.

Recommendation 25 in the report would mean that more people with a trade union background sat on public boards and that female participation on those boards was increased.

The cabinet secretary knows that that issue is close to my heart and is part of the Labour Party’s agenda, because public boards make many critical decisions about public spending and services but are largely unknown and are not entirely representative across our communities.  

Chic Brodie: Many companies do not have trade union representation.

What should happen to employees vis-à-vis board positions in those companies?


Jenny Marra: We would have to think long and hard about that. I am sure that the cabinet secretary will consider the matter.

Equality in the workplace has been discussed in the chamber in the past few weeks, from our request that public authorities direct at least one contract to a supported business to our request for the living wage to be a requirement in all public sector contracts.

The Government rejected both requests for legislative action to improve equality.

I am very interested to note how many of the 30 recommendations in the report the Government intends to enact.

The working together review highlights the incredible importance of unions in driving equality in the workplace.

It says:

“unions are not simply representatives of a sectional interest, but can act as ‘swords of justice’ in the workplace and elsewhere, generating positive individual and social outcomes.”

The review suggests closer working between the Government and the unions, and a push for better communication, to improve equality through diversity and a mutually beneficial relationship.

As I have said, productivity is the central crux of the things that make a workplace successful and afford our workers and the public the most basic rights.

All the recommendations can be enacted with political will or enacted immediately.

The powers are vested in the Parliament and are in the Scottish Government’s hands.

We can immediately begin to push matters forward.

For that reason, Labour is pleased to support the Government’s motion, but we look forward to hearing more detail during the debate on how the Scottish National Party intends to implement the suggestions in the report so that the potential of progressive workplaces comes to fruition.


Later - Summing up

Jenny Marra: Trade unions are a central part of Scotland’s economic, social and civic landscape.

With approximately 700,000 members in Scotland in 2013, unions are Scotland’s largest civic movement, and we all know the vital role that they play in our communities.

As the review that we are debating states:

“By engaging at a national level, unions can positively influence wide-ranging social and environmental policies to encourage greater fairness and sustainability. Issues such as education, youth employment and climate change can be addressed in this manner.”

It is the Scottish Government’s role to maintain a clear dialogue with our trade unions to see the best results from such potential.

That dialogue illustrates the essence of equality that must run through all progressive workplace policies if they are to be successful and sustainable.

Such constructive dialogue between our trade unions and the Scottish Government will also help to achieve some of the improvements that the working together review outlines in facilities, management of change, workplace learning and health and safety.

By working together, employees, employers, unions and the Scottish Government can enrich civic society and drive the change towards progressive workplaces.

As we have illustrated in the debate, with progressive workplaces comes a more equal society.

As Gavin Brown said, productivity is key to those workplaces, as is innovation. I was pleased to hear the departing First Minister touch on innovation in his opening speech for the business in Parliament conference, which took place last Friday in the chamber.

The importance of innovation and productivity in our workplaces cannot be ignored. It is good for businesses, employees, employers and the job market.

I turn to some of the speeches that have been made in what has been an interesting and informed debate.

I start with Liam McArthur, who highlighted how progressive workplace policies make for productive workplaces.

He underlined better than any other speaker the importance of women’s work to the economy and the need to focus unremittingly on skills. He and I share that interest.

Liam McArthur was right to highlight the cuts to college budgets.

We know that there are 140,000 fewer college places than there were when the Government came to power, but the skills and workplaces that we are talking about mean that colleges should be the powerhouses of the modern industrial economy.

Liam McArthur is right to point to that important issue.

As I have said to the cabinet secretary on many occasions, the college cuts have disproportionately affected women, older workers and part-time courses for people returning to the workplace.

It would be foolish of us to talk about progressive workplace policies but not to talk about opportunities for the skills and training that underpin those progressive workplaces.

On equality, Liam McArthur was right to point out the Government’s recent appointments to college regional boards.

I think that I am right in saying that 10 out of the 12 college chair appointments were men and just two were women.

That indicates the Scottish Government’s commitment to gender equality.

I hope that when we hear the response to the review in January we will hear more commitment.

Alex Rowley gave an interesting and good speech.

He welcomed the fair work convention, as I did—every Labour member does.

He suggested having timescales for the report’s recommendations, which was a good point. Some of the recommendations could be implemented fairly quickly.

All 30 could be implemented now, as the power is in the Government’s hands.

Angela Constance said that there will be a response at the start of next year.

Alex Rowley was right to point out that he expects a timetable to be part of that response.

I hope that the cabinet secretary can commit to that in her closing remarks.

Sandra White made an interesting speech.

I always enjoy listening to her contributions in the chamber.

She mentioned her own valuable experience of being elected as a shop steward—probably because of her innate passion and commitment to what was going on in the workplace and to her fellow workers—but having no specific training for the role.

I see that at my surgeries, where trade union reps have told me that they feel that they need more training from their unions to represent their members properly.

Sandra White was right to point out that training is key.

Properly trained union representatives in our workplaces make life better for employees and employers and contribute to the success of our public services and businesses.

Malcolm Chisholm made an eloquent contribution, as always, in which he highlighted the issues of bullying in the workplace.

I think that he was the only speaker to highlight that, but I hope and am sure that the cabinet secretary will reflect on that important issue as she develops the recommendations.

Malcolm Chisholm highlighted the work that the Labour Administration did when we were in government here on worker representation on NHS boards.

In retrospect, it seems that that initiative is perhaps a bit overdue for being extended to other public sector bodies.

That is recommendation 24.

I certainly hope that, if the Government is not committing to all the recommendations, it will commit to that one.

That brings me to the point.  

How many of the 30 recommendations will the Scottish Government sign up to? 

Will we have to wait until January to hear about that? It would be useful if the cabinet secretary addressed the recommendations this afternoon.

The Government’s announcement of a fair work convention is welcome.

However, I sound a note of caution: it cannot be just a talking shop.

For all the warmth that the Government has shown the review today, it came up short when it was asked to vote for the living wage in public sector contracts and to use procurement to bolster supported businesses just two weeks ago.

Although the Christie commission report was lauded by the SNP, it is, by and large, getting dusty on the shelf.

There has been no major reform to public service since it was published in 2011, when the SNP Government welcomed it.

The SNP has not shown any focus of great intensity on the preventative agenda, which the Christie commission recommended and which, in the long term, would save money.

The test for the working together review and for the fair work convention, as for the Christie report, is how willing the Government is to drive policy, make change happen and legislate when that is necessary.

Cosy consensus in the chamber is all very well, and the majority in the Parliament stand four square behind the review and the Government motion, but the proof, as always, will be in whether we can make the change happen in our communities and our workplaces.

The will to drive that change is largely in the Scottish Government’s hands.

Labour members are delighted to support the review, its recommendations and the Government motion.

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