A British Airways (BA) plea for workers to retrain as cabin crew to cover potential strikers is legal, but could breed resentment within the workforce, legal experts have warned.
Following Unite’s announcement that it will re-ballot BA cabin crew for strike action from next week, the airline’s chief executive Willie Walsh sent a letter to all BA staff calling on them to volunteer to perform the duties of striking workers.
In the letter to staff, Walsh said: “I am asking for volunteers to back BA by training to work alongside cabin crew who choose not to support a strike, so we are ready to keep our customers flying as much as we possibly can if this strike goes ahead.”
John Read, an employment law editor at XpertHR, told Personnel Today the airline was legally entitled to ask staff to retrain to provide strike cover. Current regulations only prevent the use of agency workers employed by external agencies from carrying out the work of those on strike.
He said: “These are current employees BA is asking to volunteer, so it’s legal, because the rules preventing them from using temporary workers don’t apply to direct employees.”
However, Read added the move to retrain existing staff could lead to further industrial relations problems for the airline as workers volunteering to replace strikers could be targeted.
“It makes financial and commercial sense, but it could breed resentment between the striking and the non-striking,” he said.
But Lisa Patmore, employment partner at law firm Pinsent Masons, said BA could still breach regulations if it relied on agency workers to cover those who retrained as cabin crew.
She said: “There would be nothing wrong with BA getting its own employees to cover the striking workers. However, what there would be a problem with is BA engaging an agency worker to cover the work of one of its employees who is covering the work of a striking worker.”
Read also warned the company should consider upping the pay of staff who volunteer to retrain.
“Subject to the terms of any collective agreements or any contractual internal BA policies or documents, BA won’t have to pay the staff the same pay as cabin crew,” he said. “However, they clearly should do so as a matter of fairness, and I would be very surprised if BA wasn’t incentivising staff to volunteer with pay or other benefits.”
A spokesman for BA refused to discuss pay or go into further detail about the letter.
Unite union said the use of “scab labour” by the airline was “a provocative attempt by BA to disrupt negotiations.”