MPs approve hotly contested plans to allow agency workers to cover for striking staff

Unions accuse the Government of "ramping up their attacks on workers".

13 Jul 2022| News

Ministers have approved controversial plans to allow agency workers to replace striking workers, voting through the regulations on Monday night by 289 votes to 202.

To allow employers to hire agency workers to act as strike-breakers is an idea that the Cameron Government floated back in 2015 at the time of the Trade Union Bill, but it was never enforced. 

Professor Keith Ewing, President of the Institute of Employment Rights, wrote an article last month about the ‘Three attacks on the right to strike‘ where he said: “There is a shortage of skilled workers. Where are the skilled workers available in numbers to do this work? Given the safety issues (especially on the railways), why are we even contemplating proposals of this kind?”

Why then did ministers change the law to allow this to happen? Business Minister Jane Hunt said the change, which was accelerated due to the ongoing rail strikes, needed to remove the “outdated blanket ban” on using agency workers to cover official industrial action.

Hunt addressed the Commons, saying: “Some trade unions appear to us to be looking to create maximum disruption in a bid to stay relevant rather than constructively seeking agreement with employers and avoid conflict.”

Labour MP John McDonnell took to Twitter before the vote to vent his frustration saying, “Tory Ministers were condemning P&O for sacking workers & replacing them with agency workers. Hypocrites, as tonight they’re forcing through a law to enable employers to bring in agency workers to break strikes.” 

The TUC and the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC) issued a joint statement in June, calling on the government to abandon its “unworkable” plan to lift the ban on agency workers filling in during strikes. 

There has been strong opposition to this motion from both unions and politicians. 

MP Justin Madders, Shadow Employment Rights and Protections Minister wrote an article earlier this month about the proposal in which he said:

“It is 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.”

Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT, said: 

“This is the latest step in a clampdown on democratic dissent which every trades unionist and democrat must oppose.

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.”

Mick Whelan, General Secretary of ASLEF, said: 

“Strikes are always a last resort.

Nobody wants to go on strike. But it is a fundamental human right to be able to withdraw your labour.

These proposals are not just anti-worker, but anti-British business. They will put public safety at risk, and encourage not best practice, but worst practice, in British business.

This is the government that allowed P&O to get away with firing 800 loyal British workers and bring in agency workers from abroad on £5.50. How does that fit with promise to level up? Or to provide good, well-paid, jobs?

What the government doesn’t seem to understand is that there aren’t any agency workers who can drive trains, anyway!”

Unions also took to Twitter to express their anger at the proposals.