If you allow employers to compete on cost not quality, you get horse

You would be forgiven for thinking that one of the last places you would find traces of horsemeat would be in a trade union officials blog but you will be disappointed.


One of our challenges as a movement this year is the changes to employment law that come into effect this year. So what is the common thread that links the horsemeat scandal and the latest attack on employment rights by the coalition?


In my view there is a very direct link as a result of the way this Government wants to see competition work in the UK. It is a particularly dangerous type of competition that is not only tolerated by the current Government, but through these changes, actively encouraged.


Shock and horror can be expressed at every stage of the food chain stretching it seems across the whole of Europe but it is difficult to conclude that no one knew that cheaper meat was being advertised and sold as more expensive meat. The Chief Executive of Waitrose has recently been quoted as saying that if consumers want higher standards they will have to pay for it.


And it is that attitude that exposes the real scandal about horsemeat in burgers and the link to the removal and limiting of employment rights. This simple statement shows that it is all about competing on cost. The sole obligation of any Chief Executive is to maximise return to shareholders which is achieved by either being better than competitors or by being cheaper. The horsemeat scandal is simply a consequence of competing on cost rather than quality.


The greater scandal however is that the attack on our employment rights has to be seen as a green light to those who can only compete on cost. Employment rights give individuals important protection but they also limit, to a small extent, the ability of a business to compete through exploitation and discrimination. The removal of these rights, or the curtailment of the ability to enforce them, represents a very clear statement by Government that they want more competition on cost and want to undermine those doing their best to compete on quality.


That means not only will we continue to find horsemeat in our burgers, but we will continue to see training budgets slashed and the undermining of essential protections such as the minimum wage and the working time directive.


In the health service we are about to see the implementation of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act which is designed to increase dramatically competition in the provision of health care. While eating horsemeat may not be a threat to human health, competition on cost in the health service is. It seems somewhat contradictory that we face this possibility while at the same time coming to terms with the wider implications of the Frances Report into Mid Staffordshire.


Perhaps the trade union response to the horsemeat scandal therefore is to reconnect with consumers and show how the attack on employment rights is an attack on us not just on the shop floor but also in the shopping centre.


The need for rights for working people is as important for consumers whether they be customers, passengers of patients as it is for workers. Health and safety legislation, the minimum wage, the working time directive, the equality act and even the requirement to auto-enrol workers into pension schemes not only protect us while we are at work but also help ensure that businesses competing for our custom are doing so by trying to be better than their competitors rather than by being the cheapest. These pieces of legislation therefore not only protect us as workers and employees but also protect our interests as consumers.


The horsemeat scandal may well make many think about turning vegetarian but our job as trade unionists is to make sure people understand that our interests as workers and as consumers coincide entirely. If we can get that argument across in the Health Service, where we are talking about patients rather than consumers, then we can re-build the consensus needed to deliver first class health care in the UK.


Paul Moloney

Industrial Relations Manager

Society of Radiographers


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