Westminster attacks Welsh devolution law preventing the use of agency labour to break strikes

Unions urge government to abandon plan to allow agency staff to replace striking workers.

7 Jul 2022| News

In June, the Government announced its plans for legislative changes to allow agencies to supply temporary workers to cover workers taking industrial action. 

Current restrictions on employment agencies during strikes can be found in regulation 7 of the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Business Regulations 2003  (the Conduct Regulations). These rules prohibit employment businesses from supplying temporary workers to cover for workers “taking part in a strike or other industrial action”.

Professor Keith Ewing President of the IER wrote a detailed analysis about the proposals to install agency workers as strikebreakers recently, suggesting that non-compliance with ILO conventions may also be a breach of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford has vowed to “resist” a concurrent proposal to repeal Welsh law on how trade unions are regulated in the public sector. This comes as the UK Government said it would repeal a Senedd law that bans agency workers from filling in for strike action in the NHS and other services.

“These proposals are an assault on workers’ rights and the will of the Welsh people. Any attempt to undermine how devolved public services operate, as well as legislation passed by the Senedd, will be met with the fiercest of opposition” he said. 

The TUC and the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC) called on the Government to abandon its “unworkable” plan to lift the ban on agency workers filling in during strikes.  

The full joint statement from the TUC and REC reads: 

The Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC) and Trades Union Congress (TUC) are urging the government to abandon its proposal to repeal the ban on agency workers filling in for employees who are on strike.

The two organisations, representing both the agency sector and unions, think the plan is unworkable and oppose it in the strongest possible terms. They urge the government to leave the current ban in place as a key element of a sustainable national employment relations framework. 

Using agency staff to cover strikes will only prolong the conflict between employers and their staff. Strikes are industrial disputes within a single industry or firm. 

The government needs to step up and do the work around resolving industrial disputes rather than inserting a third party in the form of agency workers into a dispute. 

That does nothing to solve the underlying issues between the company and their staff. This will only prolong the dispute and inflame tensions. Negotiations should be the obvious priority – rather than potentially putting the safety of agency workers and company employees at risk. 

The proposal is not practical. 

There are currently 1.3 million vacancies in the UK, a record high. REC data shows that the number of candidates available to fill roles has been falling at a record pace for months. 

In this tight labour market, agency workers are in high demand and can pick and choose the jobs they take. 

Agency staff are very unlikely to choose a role that requires them to cross a picket line versus one that doesn’t. Additionally, many roles that may be on strike require technical skills or training. 

Training agency workers to do these jobs would be expensive and time-consuming. 

Only recently government ministers came out to condemn what P&O Ferries did. Surely that example cannot have been forgotten so soon? That case showed how unfair these situations can be for agency workers, as well as the negative attention they and the agencies would receive. 

Neil Carberry, Chief Executive of the REC, said: 

“The government’s proposal will not work. Agency staff have a choice of roles and are highly unlikely to choose to cross picket lines. 

Agencies want the ban to stay to avoid them being pressured by clients into supplying staff in hostile and potentially dangerous situations. Earlier this year, we saw the effect on agencies who inadvertently got drawn into the P&O dispute. That offers a salutary lesson. 

In all disputes, our aim should be to resolve conflict, not to prolong it. Inserting a different firm’s workers into the middle of a dispute can only ever inflame tensions. 

We urge ministers to re-consider this wrong-headed approach, which runs counter to the standards adopted by the employment industry globally. Business is best served by negotiations, not showdowns.” 

Paul Nowak, TUC deputy general secretary, said: 

“Just a few months ago Grant Shapps slammed P&O for replacing experienced workers with agency staff. But now he’s proposing to do the same on railways. 

Allowing agency staff to replace striking workers would undermine the right to strike and create genuine safety risks for the public and for the workforce.  

It would put these workers in an appalling situation, worsen disputes and poison industrial relations.  

Having repeatedly promised a high-wage economy, ministers now seem determined to reduce workers’ bargaining power and to make it harder for working people to win fair pay and conditions. 

This government has the power to play an active role in helping to end disputes. But it would rather escalate tensions and pick a fight with unions.” 

On international law, Paul Nowak added: 

“Once again, this government is showing its disregard for international law, which these proposals almost certainly breach.” 

Tom Hoyles, GMB political officer for Wales said:

“GMB will fight this at every step.

Let’s be clear on this, the UK government has no right to get involved here – they are overstepping the mark.

Their vindictive trade union bill was overturned in Wales six years ago.

This is a clear attempt to create division and divert attention away from their internal party chaos and failure to tackle the cost of living crisis.

They should butt out.”

RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, said:

“The latest attack on trade union rights is not just an attack on all trade unionists but an anti-democratic move to undermine Welsh devolution.

Using agency workers to break strike action is immoral and impractical on the railways.

Our members are highly skilled and cannot simply be replaced by agency staff.

RMT will use all legal means and peaceful civil disobedience to resist any further attacks against trade union rights.”