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Government changes law to allow agency workers to plug staff shortages during strike action

The government has just unveiled a new law which will enable businesses to supply skilled agency workers to reduce disruptions to services during strike action.

The recent rail strikes, which involved 40,000 workers on three twenty-four-hour strikes, likely won’t be the only industrial action taken this year. And the government has vowed to change the law to minimise the impact on society during future action in transport and other industries. During the strikes only one in five trains ran and it brought most of the country to a standstill. With teachers, bus workers and nurses also potentially striking later in the year, the new plans are designed to prevent the same thing happening again. 

Tapping into temporary services

This was the largest national rail strike in the UK for 30 years, many people were affected on the strike days and on the days surrounding the strikes. Demand for services increased on the days when services were running as normal.

Current trade union laws prevent employment agencies from supplying temporary workers to ease staff shortages during industrial action, but the government has outlined controversial plans which will overrule this law. The legislation repeals “burdensome legal restrictions” and allows affected businesses the freedom to make use of employment agencies to provide skilled, temporary agency staff at short notice to temporarily cover essential roles during the strike. 

Unworkable solution?

National Rail has welcomed the move; however, they have pointed out that most of the roles which have most affected the train services during the strike would be impossible to fill using agency staff.

The opposition and unions have labelled it a “recipe for disaster” and the head of the UK’s recruitment body, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), Neil Carberry concurs. “It is not something agencies want and will not achieve the goals the government claims. It will not provide the workers that the government wants, and it puts agencies and agency workers in a very difficult position, with potential health and safety and reputational risks to consider,” he said.

And director of employment relations and legal services at the Royal College of Nursing, Joanne Galbraith-Marten, also agrees, “This change would be undemocratic and unsafe. Any industrial action by our members is very carefully planned to keep patients safe already – bringing in less qualified or agency workers instead could put patients at risk.”

Government going ahead despite criticism

But the government has vowed to press on with the planned changes in a statement released on 23rd June, which declares “companies will have the freedom to fill vital roles more easily so that peoples’ daily lives remain uninterrupted.”

The new legislation has also raised the damages cap that business can claim against a union when a court finds a strike is unlawful. For the biggest unions, the maximum award will increase to £1 million from £250,000.

Coming into force over the coming weeks, the changes are subject to parliamentary approval. They will apply across England, Scotland, and Wales. 

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng explained the move, saying, “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.”

JMK will continue to provide updates to this situation as it unfolds. In the meantime, if you’d like to discuss how the proposed changes might affect you, get in touch with one of our team today.

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