Who will protect the public sector’s poorest?

Hannah Frederika Lawson considers the Trade Union Bill’s impact on Wales.

In a week where discussion about the Trade Union Bill and devolved powers has largely centred around Scotland and the comments of Nicola Sturgeon, it is worth considering the implications for Wales, including how the Welsh Government, a significant public sector employer, will adapt to the Trade Union Bill if it is passed.

In his written statement earlier this month, Carwyn Jones stated ‘It is clear, however, that significant elements of the Bill relate specifically to public services which in Wales are unambiguously devolved responsibilities. I therefore do not accept the suggestion that the Bill must be regarded as concerned exclusively with non-devolved issues’. A Labour source was quoted in The Guardian as saying the First Minister ‘had already proposed [a legislative consent motion] for Wales because the trade union bill would affect public services controlled by the Cardiff assembly, as it would for public services controlled by Holyrood’.

These issues are particularly pertinent in the light of the industrial dispute between the PCS union and Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales, which continues to drag on with no immediate prospect of resolution. The dispute is over a number of issues, including severance pay and pensions, but the most contentious aspect is the senior management team’s proposal to remove premium payments for weekend working, which currently make up to 12-15% of the take-home pay of ‘front-of-house’ staff.

During negotiations, management appeared to be pre-empting the Trade Union Bill in their approach to industrial relations, using phrases like ‘the very clear message from Westminster’ in their refusal to compromise or look at alternative proposals that the Union were suggesting.

They have also been bringing in temporary non-contracted, or ‘pool’ staff to break strikes in bigger sites like Cathays Park and St. Fagan’s, and again are copying Westminster’s lead in the division of the cuts falling disproportionately on the poorest members, with senior managers taking no pay cuts and in some cases receiving additional payments for extra duties.

This approach seems particularly at odds with the union-friendly ‘partnership’ ethos promoted by the Welsh Government, which sponsors Amgueddfa Cymru. It also seems to be at odds with the First Minister’s assertion that removing the ban on agency workers ‘will prove socially divisive, lead to more confrontational relationships between employers and workers, and ultimately undermine rather than support public services and the economy’.

The union has now suspended further industrial action after management insisted that we consult our members on their current offer, with the threat that it would otherwise be withdrawn and members told to accept the previous, inferior offer or be dismissed and re-engaged on reduced terms. Members had already been balloted on the previous offer and rejected it by 65% on a 74% turnout.

Many are worried about their work-life balance and family commitments as well as lower income as they face a review, to improve efficiency in Front of House staffing, working hours and duties. They feel that to accept detrimental changes to severance, pensions and weekend pay without knowing the outcome of the review would be writing a blank cheque as regards their future hours and conditions.

Weekends are when the vast majority of our large public events and corporate functions take place, attract the highest volume of visitors, and therefore also brings the largest number of incidents including violent behaviour. The time when urgent decisions vital to the health and safety of staff and the public have to be made – and when there are no managers in work so the responsibility is then devolved to more junior staff. Yet those staff are now being told that the key message is that a Saturday or Sunday is the same as any other day, that their pay must be cut as a result, and that there are no guarantees that they will not be forced to work even more weekends in the future.

This is not just an issue about our members’ immediate interests; we must also consider the cultural contribution that they make. Many staff have skills, specialities and knowledge found rarely, if anywhere else in Wales, staff who are already very difficult to replace; miner guides, slate-splitters, craftspeople such as clogmakers, weavers on specialist looms. Our gallery assistant positions attract highly qualified and creative workers, people who are also writers, artists, musicians, film makers.

When I visited the Slate Museum at Llanberis recently I was lucky enough to see a slate splitting demonstration by a member of staff called Evan. He had the whole auditorium in the palm of his hand for the duration with his dry sense of humour and audience participation, as well as being a highly skilled craftsman. If you ever get the opportunity to experience it, you’re in for a treat. Co-incidentally a brand new donations box had just been installed and as the notes and coins went pouring in from nearly every audience member, I thought about how much extra revenue must have been generated by Evan’s skills and experience, while simultaneously his pay was being cut. Forcing through detrimental terms and conditions and lower take-home pay is not going to help in replacing these highly specialised and skilled roles.

Llanberis is also geographically a place that needs well paid jobs to rejuvenate its economy, as are other sites like Drefach and Blaenavon. For every pound invested in museums, at least six are generated in the local economy, and cultural tourism plays a huge role in Wales’ economy as a whole.

Treated decently, a motivated workforce with these skills and qualifications could be such an asset to keeping traditional Welsh crafts and skills alive, providing a creative and knowledgeable interpretive experience for our national collections, and being the backbone of the Welsh heritage and art that connect us to our very identity and history.

Hannah Frederika Lawson is PCS Amgueddfa Cymru Vice Scretary.

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