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Ministers should seek to resolve strikes, not bring in strike-breakers

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Another set of Sunday papers brings another attempt by under-pressure ministers to pick a fight with trade unions.

This time the proposal is to allow employers to bring in agency workers to fill in for striking workers.

In many ways the plans are absurd. Do ministers really think there is a pool of hundreds of highly trained signallers waiting to be deployed on the railways, for example?

But in their attempt to placate restless hard-right Tory backbench MPs, ministers risk putting workers – and the employment agencies that find them work - in a terrible position.

The conduct regulations that govern agency worker contain a ban on the use of such workers to replace strikers.

Such a prohibition has been in place since 1973, surviving the anti-union regimes of Thatcher, Major and Cameron.

And, for good reason.

For a start, lifting the ban would most likely breach international law.

The use of agency workers to replace striking workers will violate trade union members’ right to strike which is safeguarded by ILO Convention 87 Article 3, the European Social Charter 1961 (Article 6(4)) and Article 11 of the European Convention of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The International Labour Organization’s Freedom of Association Committee has said that:

the hiring of workers to break a strike in a sector which cannot be regarded as an essential sector in the strict sense of the term ....constitutes a serious violation of freedom of association.

Unions already routinely agree an emergency service in essential sectors, such as healthcare, where there is industrial action.

Allowing the deployment of agency workers would put workers in a horrible position. They would have to choose between crossing a picket line and turning down an assignment with the prospect that they will be denied future work by the agency.

And, of course, many agency workers, from supply teachers to bank nurses, are trade union members themselves.

Under the UK’s weak employment laws, agency workers are not protected from suffering a detriment if they refuse an assignment because they do not wish to replace striking workers.

The removal of the ban on the supply of agency workers would mean that employment businesses were forced to become involved in industrial disputes which are not of their making. This is why agencies themselves oppose the proposals.

Then there are the health and safety risks. Agency workers will often lack the skills, training and knowledge to act as a substitute for permanent staff. They will be unfamiliar with processes in the organisation or company and it will be difficult for them to take on the roles normally performed by permanent staff.

At best the quality of service provided – and the organisation’s reputation – is likely to decline.

At worst, the use of inexperienced agency workers may also give rise to serious health and safety concerns, within the workplace and for the wider public.

Agency workers recruited at short notice are unlikely to have received relevant health and safety training. This could lead to accidents or injuries in the workplace with the safety of other workers or indeed the public being placed at risk.

No-one wants under-trained staff in food factories, working on track maintenance or looking after children if the permanent teaching staff walk out of a school.

Such issues are going to be worse where the number of job seekers is low.  Half a million people have completely disengaged from work since the pandemic. Employers will need to recruit from a small pooler of less experienced agency workers.

This proposal gets to the heart of the government’s approach to workers’ rights.

We were promised an employment bill to give people more rights to flexible working and tackle some of the worst aspects of insecure work. But the government has failed to deliver.

Ministers said they would build a high-wage economy but pay is being eaten away by inflation for virtually everyone except for high-paid City workers.

And the government vowed P&O Ferries would “not get away” with its no-notice dismissal of 800 maritime workers but so far ministers seem happy to see it sail off scot-free.

Ultimately, the government’s proposal will make it far harder for working people to organise collectively to defend their jobs, their livelihoods and the quality of their working lives.

Workers struggling with rising living costs will find it harder to secure pay increases.

As a result, the gap between the rich and low paid in the UK will continue to grow and families will continue to struggle to meet household bills.

This would be a shameful outcome for a government that only a few years ago promised to “protect and enhance” workers’ rights.

Now is the time to stand up for what we believe in. If you’ve had enough of this government, and if you’re fed up with everything going up but wages, then join us in London this Saturday. It's time to demand better! 

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