Public anger about immigration will turn into a backlash against big business and the owners of capital unless a new deal is struck with “shafted and abandoned” workers, the general secretary of the TUC has warned.
Frances O’Grady said that companies needed to deliver for local communities and not short-term foreign shareholders, or the nationalism that triggered popular uprisings in Britain, the United States and Italy would get worse.
She called for a new “bargain between labour and capital” to stave off social divisions and protect the rule of law.
Ms O’Grady, speaking to The Times after Mark Carney, the Bank of England governor, had railed against “stateless corporations” that fostered “isolation and detachment”, welcomed his intervention, as well as pledges by the prime minister to protect workers’ rights. However, she said that the country now “needed deeds not words”.
“So much focus is on immigration right now,” she said. “At some point the focus will turn to the fact that nearly half of all shares in Britain are held overseas and only for a matter of months on average. At some point the focus will shift from labour to capital. Unless our political representatives have answers for that, we could see feelings that are at least as intense expressed about the sense of wanting some control. There is an irony that we voted for Brexit at a time when multinational corporations are becoming ever more powerful.”
Her comments came as the TUC set out its Brexit priorities to protect and improve jobs. The unions’ umbrella body, which was a prominent voice in the Remain campaign, wants access to the single market even if it means paying, the adoption of European workers’ rights and free movement of labour.
Six in ten TUC members voted to remain in the European Union. Ms O’Grady acknowledged that the proposal did not reflect the outcome of the referendum vote, but said that the more urgent issue was to address the underlying causes of disenfranchisement.
“Communities have not been left behind,” she said. “They have been shafted and abandoned. That’s the result of decisions taken in boardrooms and committee rooms in Westminster. We have to deal with the root cause of people’s worries.”
The government should boost its migrant impact fund to help affected communities, as well as investing in human capital, such as skills and education, and strengthen workers’ rights. Overhauling corporate governance is vital to ensure companies act in the best interests of Britain rather than their foreign owners, she added.
Putting workers on boards was key and Theresa May’s decision to water down her earlier promise was worrying. The prime minister is now pushing for worker representatives on boards.
“I’m disappointed that a business lobby group says ‘boo’ and the government backs off,” Ms O’Grady said. “If you make promises, you better keep them. If you break one, what others will you break?”