Breaking strikes using agency workers is recklessly gambling with public safety

"Ministers are once again looking to breach their own commitments by allowing the treatment of workers to fall far short of international standards."

Commentary icon1 Jul 2022|Comment

Justin Madders

Justin Madders is MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston and shadow employment rights and protections minister.

The government’s move to replace skilled and safety-critical workers on strike, published today, is deliberately inflammatory. It is also a totally reckless threat to public safety. Tory ministers are acting as arsonists rather than firefighters as they fan the flames of division in the country they are meant to govern. Rather than do their job and fix the mess they have created, they are seeking to deflect and distract from their discredited and aimless government.

Having brought the country to a standstill by their failure to do their jobs and resolve the rail strike, ministers are once again looking to breach their own commitments by allowing the treatment of British workers to fall far short of international standards. That is the effect of their proposal to break strikes with agency workers – failing working people in Britain and ushering in a race to the bottom.

But this is more than just another Tory attack on rights at work. It is also unworkable, unsafe and goes against good employment practices. Employment agencies themselves have said that it is a recipe for disaster and business leaders oppose it too. As a pro-worker and pro-business party that will defend public safety and defend the rights of ordinary people to take industrial action, Labour will be opposing this legislation on all counts.

Just two months ago, Grant Shapps confected outrage about the illegal and unsafe decision by P&O to replace unionised workers with agency staff. Yet, despite pledging to end this cruel practice, the Conservatives have broken their promise and instead seek to make it easier for unscrupulous bosses to use it.

As the news broke that 800 people were being replaced by agency workers, many of them brought into the country overnight and paid below the UK’s National Minimum Wage, the government was swift to condemn P&O’s actions as unlawful and disgraceful. But now it is proposing to legalise the very practices they denounced.

The move to end the ban on the use of agency workers to staff strikes would sanction bad bosses to undermine workers’ rights and leave millions more British workers vulnerable to worse pay, conditions and workplace safety. Ministers appear to have learned nothing from the P&O scandal, which has resulted in dozens of safety failures and the grounding of vessels – as well as mass job losses.

There is other precedent they should learn from. In the US, strike-breaking agency workers produced defective tires at Firestone, which were linked to 271 fatalities and more than 800 injuries. In the UK, many will well remember Railtrack – the private cowboy outfit that ran the rail infrastructure at the behest of a Tory government – and the carnage and deaths caused by their incompetence. The dozens of deaths and thousands of injuries at rail disasters such as Ladbroke Grove, Southall and Potters Bar are a testament to the unacceptable risks of past mistakes being made again. This ministerial wheeze for a repeat is as foolish it is dangerous. It would put passenger safety on our railways and the wider public at risk of harm. It is a downright dereliction of duty by ministers.

We’re not the only ones to point this out. Since the government made their intentions on this new proposal clear, businesses from the agency sector have come out to agree with us too. For example, the Recruitment and Employment Federation (REC), which represents 3,000 agency businesses, has joined forces with the TUC to urge the government to keep the ban in place as a key part of sustainable employment relations where disputes are resolved rather than inflamed.

The measure won’t even do what it says on the tin. There is no chance that thousands of signallers and drivers could be replaced overnight by agency workers who don’t exist. Where are the temps who will be able to operate 25,000-volt control centres or signal 140mph high-speed trains? How could the public trust them to do so? The idea it could defeat the rail strikes is a dangerous Tory fantasy and designed to exacerbate tensions rather than resolve the dispute.

The truth is that it is just another Conservative tactic to sow division across the country rather than take responsibility. Instead of gambling with people’s safety, the Transport Secretary should be negotiating a settlement but he would rather hide behind Network Rail – which is totally accountable to him and the Rail Delivery Group. It’s high time he did his job.

For too long, the Tories have allowed for workers’ rights in this country to be watered down and despite 12 years of opportunity to act the government has failed to do so. We are seeing this right now not just in its response to the rail strikes but when ministers chose to junk their employment bill in the Queen’s Speech – despite pledging on over 20 occasions to introduce legislation. Instead, the government has now managed to one-up itself by effectively giving the green light for another P&O scandal.

This is why the Labour Party proposed our own new deal for working people that will bring in real protections for workers, rising pay, improving job security and banishing bullying tactics like fire and rehire. As we go into the next election, Labour will present to the British people a comprehensive set of workplace reforms that will ensure job security and employment rights are placed once more on a firm footing. Labour will uphold these values by joining businesses, trade unions and public safety advocates to oppose the government’s poorly thought through plans at every step of the way.

Originally published on LabourList on 27th June 2022.