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Fair Work in Practice - Unite the Union Case Study: Effective Voice

Scottish Union Learning has been working closely with unions across Scottish Apprenticeships to develop apprenticeship standards and frameworks, to progress apprenticeship opportunities with employers and to support Apprentices in their workplaces.

This is the fifth in a series of five apprenticeship case studies from a range of unions working in different sectors. Each case study will focus on a specific Fair Work dimension in practice, although the Fair Work dimensions do not stand in isolation from each other.

Effective Voice

"Effective voice requires leadership and support from employers, workers and unions. Voice is effective where workers have scope to say what they feel, are listened to and where their voice can make a difference. Workers in unionised firms were more likely to point to these characteristics of voice in their workplaces. This is consistent with wider research evidence that suggests that effective voice is most likely where unions are present, and where management and union representatives have the orientation, capability and capacity to communicate, influence and negotiate." Fair Work Framework 2016

Unite the Union: A Construction Sector Case Study

by Tam Kirby, Unite the Union

Effective Voice is a key element of Fair Work. It is essential that young people are able to use their voice without fear of retribution. Trade unions are the most effective organisations to ensure both individual and collective voices are heard.

Apprentices in the main are encountering the workplace for the first time, they can feel isolated and somewhat overwhelmed by the experience and are less likely to raise issues with their employer or immediate supervisors. Unite the Union within the construction sector has identified this as a major concern and has actively sought out and engaged with construction apprentices.

Through the our links with the Scottish Electrical Charity Training Trust (SECTT) / (SELECT), the Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers’ Federation (SNIPEF), the Scottish Building Apprenticeship Training Council (SBATC) and Scottish Painting and Decorating Apprenticeship Council (SPADAC), we negotiate the national agreements and working rules for all construction apprentices in Scotland.

A comprehensive apprenticeship agreement is issued to employers with the promulgated collectively bargained terms for the apprentice, to make sure they are aware at what minimum rate the young person should be paid.

These links also provide a mechanism where the apprentice can independently raise issues and seek guidance.

In 2018, Unite and the Scottish Government introduced the role of a construction Fair Work Apprentice Coordinator (FWAC) to engage with the trade federations and college sector, to identify apprentices undertaking their necessary training, and provide support and guidance where required; and to engage with these young workers and increase their knowledge and understanding of their employment rights and how this relates to the Fair Work.

Working with the Unite organising department, the FWAC visits construction apprentices in colleges and workplaces across Scotland to promote Fair Work and trade union membership.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, we moved to online sessions and worked with colleges, SECTT and SNIPEF training officers to ensure we were still able to engage with the new intake of apprentices and adult trainees this year. At the beginning of the initial lockdown in 2020, Unite conducted a survey of construction apprentices. The survey was sent to all Unite construction apprentice members and through SECTT, SNIPEF, SBATC and SPADAC it went to non-union apprentices. Over 600 apprentices completed the survey. The results identified key concerns, including issues with furlough payments, redundancy, concerns over college work, future prospects and a complete lack of communications from employers.

A major issue highlighted by fourth year apprentices was they could not complete their apprenticeship, as they could not take the final skills test. There were approximately 1100 apprentices across all trades affected. This information was passed onto the Scottish Government and the trade federations, which resulted in plans being put in place to address the issue as a priority. Colleges were allowed to open earlier than planned, and opened at weekends, to ensure these apprentices could complete their training.

The FWAC continues to meet regularly with SECTT, SNIPEF, SBATC and SPADAC to raise concerns highlighted by, or affecting, construction apprentices. Individual apprentices contacting Unite are passed onto the FWAC, and all details of issues raised by the apprentice are reported to the Scottish Government and to the Unite Officers and Reps. SECTT and SNIPEF officers always encourage non-union apprentices to contact the FWAC if they raise an issue with them.

Extending trade union recognition and collective bargaining at workplace and sector levels can address areas where the young worker’s voice is absent in Scottish workplaces. The work Unite does with construction apprentices proves how effective this can be and we continually review our methods, so as to improve our interactions in this area and to ensure young workers’ voices can be heard.

Related resources

Fair Work in Practice - NUJ Case Study: Opportunity This is the third in a series of five apprenticeship case studies from a range of unions working in different sectors.

Fair Work in Practice - RMT Case Study: Security This is the first in a series of five apprenticeship case studies from a range of unions working in different sectors.

Fair Work in Practice - UNISON Case Study: Respect This is the second in a series of five apprenticeship case studies from a range of unions working in different sectors.

Fair Work in Practice - Unite the Union Case Study: Fulfilment This is the fourth in a series of five apprenticeship case studies from a range of unions working in different sectors.