MPs have approved controversial plans to allow employers to utilise agency workers while staff are on strike, despite strong opposition and concerns about safety in certain industries.
The draft Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022 were laid before parliament yesterday evening (11 July) and were approved by 289 votes to 202.
If approved by the House of Lords, legislation will be altered to allow employers in vital public services including education, transport and healthcare to replace striking staff with agency workers to ensure shifts are covered.
The proposals had received significant opposition from bodies including the TUC and the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, which in a joint letter said involving agency workers in disputes would sour industrial relations even further and risk the safety of workers and the public.
Business minister Jane Hunt, recently appointed to the role after scores of ministers resigned over concerns about Boris Johnson’s leadership, said that the right to strike “must be balanced against the rights of the public to go about their daily lives”.
She told MPs: “Strikes can, and do, cause significant disruption. That is particularly the case when they take place in important public services such as transport or education. It cannot be right that trade unions can, as we saw in the case of the recent rail strikes, seek to hold the country to ransom if their demands are not met.”
Hunt noted that organisations can already directly bring in short-term staff to cover gaps left by industrial action, but this change would give them the ability to work with specialist employment agencies to source staff.
“The changes we are making will ensure that our trade union and agency laws remain fit for purpose. We are giving businesses the freedom to manage their workforce and empowering workers by giving them more choices about the kind of assignments they can accept.
“We will continue to protect an individual’s right to strike where proper procedures are followed, while ensuring that trade unions are deterred from taking unlawful industrial action,” she said.
However, Labour’s shadow chancellor Angela Rayner described the plans as “anti-business and anti-worker” and highlighted that the government’s own impact assessment estimated that only 2% of working hours lost to strikes would be covered.
“They will risk public safety, rip up workers’ rights, and encourage the very worst practices. Above all, they will not prevent strikes; they will provoke them,” she said.
“There is a risk to safety, both to workers themselves and the public. The proposals could see agency workers recruited on the hoof and squeezed in to cover highly skilled roles.
“Take the recent rail strikes, which the minister mentioned in her opening speech. They saw skilled workers such as signallers, guards and maintenance staff walk out. In case the minister did not know, it takes a year to train a signaller. Where are the temps who can operate 25,000 volts at control centres or signal 140 mph high-speed trains? How could the travelling public have any confidence in their safety? The public should absolutely not be put in a position where that could happen.”
It takes a year to train a signaller. Where are the temps who can operate 25,000 volts at control centres or signal 140 mph high-speed trains? How could the travelling public have any confidence in their safety?” – Angela Rayner, Labour
Rayner gave the example of P&O Ferries, which has reported a significant number of safety failings since replacing its crews with agency staff earlier this year.
SNP MP Chris Stephens said the changes would put agency workers in a “horrible position”, as they would have to choose between crossing a picket line and turning down an assignment with the prospect of being denied future work.
“Many agency workers, such as supply teachers and bank nurses, will be 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,” he said.
“There will also be a negative impact on the agencies themselves. The removal of the ban on the supply of agency workers would mean that employment businesses were forced to become involved in industrial disputes not of their making.”
Plaid Cymru MP Hywel Williams noted that the ability to replace striking staff with agency workers conflicted with the Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017, which was passed in the Senedd. Hunt responded that this act would be repealed as the government wanted the same regulations to apply across all UK nations.
Labour MP Barry Gardiner added that as agency workers are generally paid more that permanent staff because of the intermittent nature of their work, appointing agency workers to cover for striking staff might actually work in some unions’ favour as “it shows that the employer actually can pay higher rates for the job”.
“How very foolish of them,” he said of the government.
As and when the law does change, we would advise recruitment agencies to tread very carefully. Not all business is good business, and they should consider the potential risks to both their business and agency workers.” – Neil Carberry, REC
Responding to the news, REC chief executive Neil Carberry said replacing striking staff with agency workers will not work and called on the House of Lords to look at the key issues again in its upcoming debate.
“As and when the law does change, we would advise recruitment agencies to tread very carefully. Not all business is good business, and they should consider the potential risks to both their business and agency workers before deciding whether to supply staff to a strike situation,” Carberry advised.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the decision to approve the proposals was a “shameless attack on working people”.
The union body said there had been no consultation with unions, which the government is obliged to take under the Employment Agencies Act 1973.
“These pernicious new laws threaten public safety, and make it harder for workers to defend their jobs, pay and conditions,” she said.
“Limiting workers’ ability to bargain for higher wages is the cowardly and desperate last act of a government in chaos – especially while millions struggle to make ends meet. Instead of picking a fight to distract from their many failings, ministers should be doing all they can to de-escalate industrial disputes.”
Mick Lynch, general secretary at the RMT union – which was at the centre of last month’s rail strikes – said: “The use of agency labour to break strikes is not only unethical and morally reprehensible; it is totally impracticable. Agency workers will not have the skill, training, or relevant competences to drive a train to do complex maintenance work on the track, to signal trains or to do a whole host of safety critical work on the network.
“Instead of trying to reduce trade union rights which are already the worst in western Europe, the government should be unshackling Network Rail and the train operating companies so we can secure a negotiated settlement on the railways.”