The government’s bid to change the law and allow companies to plug staffing gaps with agency workers during strikes has met with an angry response from unions and scepticism from business.
Legislation introduced today will repeal trade union laws that restrict employers from supplying temporary agency workers to carry out duties by employees who are taking part in industrial action. It will allow organisations to fill gaps with “skilled” agency staff at short notice.
The announcement by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Transport comes as workers across 13 train operating companies and Network Rail, members of the RMT union, go on strike for the second day this week (23 June) over pay and job security. A third strike day is planned for Saturday 25 June.
Talks between the RMT union and rail bosses broke down yesterday, with the union stating that transport secretary Grant Shapps had “wrecked” negotiations by not allowing Network Rail to withdraw a letter threatening redundancy for 2,900 staff.
Union and business bodies have said the decision to allow temporary workers to fill roles presents a safety risk in the case of the rail sector.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “These plans are a deliberate attempt to undermine the right to strike and to reduce workers’ bargaining power.
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“Bringing in less qualified agency staff to deliver important services will endanger public safety, worsen disputes and poison industrial relations.
O’Grady said that asking agency staff to break strikes will put them in an “appalling and impossible situation”, where some may not realise that they are being asked to cross picket lines.
The Recruitment and Employment Confederation, which this week issued a joint statement with the TUC denouncing the plans, said organisations that provided agency staff did not want nor support the proposal.
Chief executive Neil Carberry said: “This change is being made with no consultation of the people it affects most – agencies and agency workers.
“This is a fundamental change to the regulations that govern recruitment businesses, and the industry is strongly opposed to it – it is not a pro-business move. We urge government to drop their plans and think again.
“Agency workers are in high demand, and most will not choose a job that forces them to cross a picket line over another where they do not have to.”
If the change in law were to be approved in parliament, it would apply to all sectors and would take effect in England, Wales and Scotland over the coming weeks.
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “Once again trade unions are holding the country to ransom by grinding crucial public services and businesses to a halt. The situation we are in is not sustainable.
“Repealing these 1970s-era restrictions will give businesses freedom to access fully skilled staff at speed, all while allowing people to get on with their lives uninterrupted to help keep the economy ticking.”
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “Despite the best efforts of militant union leaders to bring our country to a standstill, it’s clear this week’s strikes did not have the desired impact due to more people being able to work from home. However, far too many hard working families and businesses were unfairly affected by the union’s refusal to modernise.
“Reforms such as this legislation are vital and will ensure any future strikes will cause even less disruption and allow adaptable, flexible, fully skilled staff to continue working throughout.”
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