A controversial proposal to allow temporary agency workers to be hired by employers during industrial action has been put forward for a second time by a free-market policy think tank. Originally suggested in the 2015 Conservative manifesto, the proposal has drawn strong criticism from unions and recruitment professionals.
Originally suggested in 2015 after David Cameron’s general election win, the proposal would change current employment law by removing the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulation that currently prevents employers from hiring temporary workers to replace those employees on strike. While a consultation was ordered on the proposal when it was first put forward, the results of the consultation were never released.
Now however, the Centre for Policy Studies think tank is urging to government to reconsider the policy once more. According to employment lawyer Dr Sybille Steiner from Irwin Mitchell, the proposal could be made law either by an amendment to the Trade Union Act, an amendment of the Employment Business Regulations, or by requiring an even higher number of votes required for lawful industrial action. Any amendments would then render employment agents exempt from regulations and able to hire out temporary workers to carry out ‘essential public services’ in the event of a strike.
The proposal faced strong criticism in 2015 when it was introduced, both from unions and the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, and faces much the same reaction now as recruitment professionals fear that the hiring of temporary workers would undermine any industrial action and further reduce the rights of workers.
“This is an over-the-top call from a hard right group which has no idea about the challenges faced by working people. These are the measures of despots, not democrats,” said Howard Beckett of Unite. “The UK already has the most restrictive labour laws in the Western world, and that calls for measures such as these only further tilt the scales in favour of rogue bosses. It also fails to address the heart of the matter – seven years of service and wages cuts to a dedicated workforce now fed up with a government that will not listen.”
However it’s not all bad news for unions just yet. Jacquline McDermott of business law firm Keystone Law points out that any proposal to amend or repeal regulations would require the publication of the original 2015 consultation report and would still have to be passed by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, an unlikely outcome considering how far-reaching the changes would have to be. “Arguably, it would also have to publish the results of the consultation, which it appears it so far failed to do,” she said. “If it were to be successful in repealing Reg 7, then it would apply to all sectors and services and not just essential ones, unless any secondary legislation specifically limited the use of agency workers to essential services.”
If the ‘strike-breakers’ proposal were to go ahead, it wouldn’t be the first time the current government has taken on the unions. The 2016 amendments to the Trade Union Act already increased the threshold of votes required for lawful action and made the regulations for legal strikes even stricter, which has so far prevented both London Underground workers and Scottish public service workers from being able to take legal industrial action.