Ten trade unions are taking legal action against the government’s new regulations that allow agency workers to fill in for workers on strike. The unions, coordinated by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), are challenging the government, which they say has undermined the right to assemble and in turn the right to engage in a strike. A primary school in Romford became the first workplace to use the legislation to hire agency workers to cover for staff on strike over pay and conditions on Tuesday.
The government changed the law in July through an amendment to the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003. Introducing the law, chancellor and former business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “In light of militant trade union action threatening to bring vital public services to a standstill, we have moved at speed to repeal these burdensome, 1970s-style restrictions.”
Unions are launching a judicial review on the grounds that the change violates Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (enshrined into UK law through the Human Rights Act 1998), which protects the right to freedom of assembly and association, including the right to strike. They called the legislation is “strike-breaking” because agency workers could replace the labour withdrawn when workers go on strike, disrupting negotiations. Unions said that by failing to consult them on this change, the government acted against the Employment Agencies Act 1973.
The move comes after the TUC reported the government to the International Labor Organization, the UN body in charge of workers’ rights standards of which the UK was a founding member. It said the government had violated conventions 87 and 98, which protect the right of workers to organise and bargain collectively for improved conditions or pay, free from impediment.
‘Charter for exploitation’
Trade union leaders have called the reforms “anti-worker” and “undermine the right to strike”.
Ian Hodson, national president of the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), which is joining the legal action, told EachOther that by undermining the right to strike, the government was creating a “charter for the exploitation of working people”. He said that by allowing the use of agency workers, the government was restricting unions’ legal mandate from workers to call for strike action.
“It’s a bit hypocritical that our own government has decided to take a similar path to these regimes they often call out for opposing the rights of individuals and the rights of workers,” he said.
He added that it is common in the food industry to use agency workers to fill in for workers on the shop floor. If these workers were then encouraged to cover for striking workers in dispute with their management, it could stoke “massive conflict” and “chaos” by “pitting worker against worker”.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said: “The right to strike is a fundamental British liberty. But the government is attacking it in broad daylight.
“Threatening this right tilts the balance of power too far towards employers. It means workers can’t stand up for decent services and safety at work – or defend their jobs and pay.”
In a debate in the House of Lords in July, Lord Collins of Highbury said: “Let us not forget: strikes are a last resort…[the amendment] will make it far harder for working people to organise collectively to defend their jobs, their livelihoods and the quality of their working lives.”
More ‘anti-democratic’ reforms
The chancellor has previously announced plans to require unions to put every pay offer to members for a vote, which Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, called “anti-democratic”.
In his speech during Conservative party conference, Kwarteng said: “Pernicious strike action disrupts the lives of the British people and it slows down our economy. So, we will introduce important reforms to stop strike action from derailing our daily lives.”
Hodson said he felt the government wanted people to feel that taking strike action was too risky, especially during the cost of living crisis.
He said: “A scared worker is too scared to take action… You take away their ability to organise in a workplace. You make them afraid. You make them just accept constant job insecurity and low pay. What sort of life is that?”
He said the government’s attempts to demonise trade unions were undermining workers in general. “These are working people,” he said. “You’ve got the health service – nurses and junior doctors – and you’ve got barristers [going on strike]. There’s a real issue in this country with unfairness, with low pay and job insecurity.”
The TUC is coordinating the legal action between ASLEF, the trade union for train drivers; BFAWU, FDA, a civil servant’s union; GMB, a union for all; the National Education Union; the National Union of Journalists; POA, the union for prison, correctional and secure psychiatric workers; PCS, the public and commercial services union; RMT, the rail and maritime workers union, Unite; and Usdaw, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers.