Temps perdu? Government losing the argument to roll back the clock on replacing strikers
Running in parallel with their controversial and wide reaching trade union bill, the government are currently trying to overturn a 40 year ban on employers using agency temps to cover for striking workers.
Unions are rather obviously against this move, as it pretty comprehensively undermines a strike if workers can be replaced at the drop of a hat. Coupled with the trade union bill’s other provisions, it’ll mean employers get 14 days’ notice when a strike is called, that they can use to hire in temps to minimise the impact of the stoppage.
This threat is doubly worrying for workers in semi-skilled or unskilled occupations, where it would be easier for an employer to find a whole new workforce at short notice. If the proposal passes, it could signal the end of progress made by workers like the Hovis strikers in 2013 (who safeguarded secure employment from growing zero hours contracts) or last year’s Ritzy cinema strikers (who got their highly profitable employer to cough up a 26% raise on their low paid London jobs). It’s not hard to see how pay and conditions could be eroded right across the economy.
There are also huge concerns around the safety of poorly trained replacement workers themselves, who may end up driving lorries, operating heavy machinery or in front line public services, not to mention the safety of their colleagues or even members of the public. Service quality could suffer as well. And for the agency workers themselves, often younger people in less secure employment, there’s the risk many could feel pressured or misled into entering a stressful situation by taking on the jobs of striking workers.
So all in all, it’s unsurprising that the government are finding it hard to get people enthusiastic about the idea. The latest to come out against it is the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC), the professional body for UK recruitment agencies, who have consulted their members and found little support. Kate Shoesmith, head of policy at the REC has told the BBC it could jeopardise their duty of care to their agency workers:
“We are not convinced that putting agencies and temporary workers into the middle of difficult industrial relations situations is a good idea for agencies, workers or their clients.”
Many people actively choose agency work as a flexible alternative to full time contracts, and this kind of abuse of agency workers is going to do nothing to help the employment industry provide the best service to all parties in the arrangement.
Another factor here will be the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Recommendation 188 on private employment agencies, which states “private employment agencies should not make workers available to a user enterprise to replace workers of that enterprise who are on strike”. Many bigger employment agencies operate internationally, so whilst the UK hasn’t yet ratified this, it forms a firm part of workers’ rights in many other countries, and is seen as a standard for responsible international employers to adhere to.
Indeed, at an international level employment agencies have long-standing commitments around this. The International Confederation of Private Employment Agencies (Ciett) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the global union UNI in 2008, which agreed any regulatory framework on temporary agency work should include and promote the prohibition of the replacement of striking workers by temporary agency workers.
REC’s intervention was echoed on both sides of the House of Commons last night, when the trade union bill received its second reading. Alongside many opposition MPs, Conservative MPs Alec Sherborne and William Wragg also spoke out against the proposal. They both urged the Secretary of State not to allow the use of agency workers to replace strikers in private sector disputes.
Like so much of the trade union bill, the government really need to reconsider this damaging and ill thought out proposal.
And if you’re opposed to it as well, please join the more than 25,000 signatories of our petition against allowing the use of agency temps to replace strikers.