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  • Rare intervention by ILO labelled as “hugely embarrassing” for ministers
  • TUC renews calls to ditch pernicious strikes bill which “will only drag us further away from democratic norms”

The UN workers’ rights watchdog, the ILO, has slammed the UK’s anti-union drive and called on ministers to bring UK union laws into line with international law.

The ILO demanded the UK government ensure that current and future legislation respects international law – representing another blow to the government’s anti-union agenda.

The ILO issued a rare instruction for ministers to “seek technical assistance” from ILO staff and report back on progress in September.

This type of intervention was last deployed by the UN workers’ rights watchdog against the UK in 1995.

The TUC has labelled this rare intervention “hugely embarrassing” for ministers – particularly after their repeated claims that the ILO backed the UK's new anti-strikes laws, which the ILO directly denied.

Strikes Bill

The UK government’s flagship Strikes Bill has been slammed by leading employment lawyers as making the UK an “international outlier” and breaching international laws.

The Bill would mean that when workers lawfully vote to strike in health, education, fire, transport, border security and nuclear decommissioning, they could be forced to attend work – and sacked if they don’t comply. 

The government has suffered repeated defeats on the Strikes Bill in the House of Lords.

And the legislation has faced a barrage of criticism from employers, civil liberties organisations, the joint committee on human rights, House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, race and gender equalities groups, employment rights lawyers, politicians around the world – as well as a whole host of other organisations.

Last summer, ministers changed the law to allow agencies to supply employers with workers to fill in for those on strike and break strikes. Unions are currently challenging the change in courts – with a judgment expected soon.

The ILO has been demanding since 2018 that the government review the 2016 Trade Union Act, which made it far harder for workers to take industrial action to defend pay and conditions.

This week the ILO also called on the government to:

  • allow unions to use electronic ballots – currently unions are prevented from using e-ballots to elect top officials and vote on industrial action.
  • rein in the powers of the union regulator, the Certification Officer
  • consult more with unions and employers on legislation.

TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak said:

“This is hugely embarrassing for the Conservative government and speaks to the scale of anti-union attacks on their watch.

“The right to strike is a fundamental freedom. But the Conservatives are attacking it in broad daylight with the draconian Strikes Bill.

“Ministers have been falsely claiming the ILO’s support for a spiteful piece of legislation which only serves to drag us further away from democratic norms.

“The truth is that the UK already has some of the most restrictive trade union laws in Europe.

“These new anti-strike curbs will poison industrial relations and do nothing to resolve current disputes.

“It's time to ditch the pernicious strikes bill for good and protect the right to strike.”

Editors note

-The ILO statement in full:

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (ratification: 1949) Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87)

The Committee took note of the oral and written information provided by the Government and the discussion that followed.

The Committee noted the centrality of social dialogue to freedom of association and thus to the meaningful application of the Convention.

Taking into account the discussion of the case, the Committee requests the Government to provide information to and facilitate the dialogue between and with the social partners with a view to:

  • report on the results of the 2015 Undercover Policing Inquiry and the 2018 Trades Union Confederation (TUC) allegations regarding surveillance of trade unions and trade unionists;
  • ensure that existing and prospective legislation is in conformity with the Convention;
  • limit and define the investigatory powers of the Certification Officer to ensure that these powers do not interfere with the autonomy and functioning of workers’ and employer’s organizations;
  • facilitate electronic balloting (e-balloting);
  • improve consultation of the social partners on legislation of relevance to them.

The Committee invites the Government to avail itself of the technical assistance of the ILO and requests the Government to provide information on progress made on all the above issues by 1 September 2023 to the Committee of Experts.

- About the TUC: The Trades Union Congress (TUC) exists to make the working world a better place for everyone. We bring together the 5.5 million working people who make up our 48 member unions. We support unions to grow and thrive, and we stand up for everyone who works for a living.


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