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Agency workers to fill staff gaps during strike action

2022 marks the first rail strike since 1989
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A new law will swiftly come into action to allow businesses to supply skilled agency workers to plug staffing gaps during industrial action, the government has reported.

The news is found surprising by employment experts given the latest Future of Work Review has yet to act on findings that have come out of previous reviews.

Here are some of the government’s motivations for giving employers the green light:

  • Government acts to “reduce disruption from strike action” by removing the restrictions on employment businesses supplying temporary workers to cover striking staff
  • Companies will have the “freedom to fill” vital roles more easily so that peoples’ daily lives remain uninterrupted
  • Government has also raised the damages cap businesses can claim against a union when a court finds a strike is unlawful

A change in the law enabling businesses to supply skilled agency workers to plug staffing gaps during industrial action has been unveiled by the government highlighting that the Conservative Party is willing to play hardball with unions if it means keeping essential services running during the Cost of Living Crisis.

Under current trade union laws employment businesses are restricted from supplying temporary agency workers to fill duties by employees who are taking part in strikes. “This can have a disproportionate impact, including on important public services, causing severe disruption to the UK economy and society – from preventing people from getting to work to creating challenges for how businesses manage their workforce,” the government said in a statement.

The motivations by the swift change in law will give employers more flexibility but businesses will still need to comply with broader health and safety rules that keep both employees and the public safe. It would be their responsibility to hire cover workers with the necessary skills and/or qualifications to meet those obligations.

“The change in law, which will apply across all sectors, is designed to minimise the negative and unfair impact of strikes on the British public by ensuring that businesses and services can continue operating,” said the government statement. For example, strikes in public services such as education can often mean parents have to stay at home with their children rather than go to work, or rail sector strikes stopping commuters getting to work or to other businesses, said the statement.

Subject to parliamentary approval, these changes are made through a statutory instrument and are set to come into force over the coming weeks and will apply across England, Scotland and Wales.

“Most of the Taylor Review recommendations have yet to be implemented, the government have yet to respond to the Employment Status consultation from 2018, and there was no Employment Bill in the Queen’s Speech this year, which would have established the Single Enforcement Body which would have protected vulnerable workers,” said Rebecca Seely Harris, an independent employment status expert, in a recent FI report.

The news of the change in law coincides with the announcement that the RMT strike action would go ahead today after talks broke down without agreement.

Commenting on the talks, Mick Lynch RMT general secretary said: “Grant Shapps has wrecked these negotiations by not allowing Network Rail to withdraw their letter threatening redundancy for 2,900 of our members.

“Until the government unshackle Network Rail and the train operating companies, it is not going to be possible for a negotiated settlement to be agreed.

“We will continue with our industrial campaign until we get a negotiated settlement that delivers job security and a pay rise for our members that deals with the escalating cost of living crisis.”

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng is determined to bolster the role of the UK's Small Business Commissioner
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng: “Trade unions holding the country to ransom”

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said in a statement the same week:

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 had this to say:

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 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.

The government has also announced that it is raising the maximum damages that courts can award against a union when strike action has been found by the court to be unlawful. The caps on damages, which have not been changed since 1982, will be increased. For the biggest unions, the maximum award will rise from £250,000 to £1 million.

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Call for agency staff to break strikes – will contractors and recruiters take the risk?

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