The proposals in the Conservative Trade Union Bill on the use of agency workers is a wide open door for employers to take ‘secondary action’ and will be a recipe for ongoing strife and resentment in the workplace.
This reactionary Government is ripping up the previous consensus against the use of agency workers to break strikes in the UK. The proposed revoking of the regulations agreed in 2003 that prohibit employment businesses from providing agency workers to cover the duties normally performed by an employee of an organisation who is taking part in industrial action puts the UK in breach of international legal obligation, ILO Convention 87. The 2003 regulations, which also apply to those duties where employees not taking action are covering the work of other employees taking strike action, were brought in with good reason - to allow employees to take effective industrial action in both the public and the private sector. It is an important aspect of our democratic right to strike.
The justification given by the Conservative Party for this change in trade union rights is the impact on the wider public and on businesses managing their own workforce. The Conservatives have used the disruption to postal deliveries due to strike action as an example of the impact on the public that should not be tolerated. They say ‘postal workers, individuals and employers reliant on postal services would be placed at a disadvantage due to resulting backlog in deliveries’. But the revoking of the regulations pits worker against worker and how this may play out in the public arena and in the workplace is in itself an argument against the revoking of the regulations.
The use of agency workers to replace and undercut an existing workforce (for there is no right for striking workers to get their jobs back) has the potential to cause real strife in local communities. In addition this may well have a detrimental effect in particular sectors where employees with the same skills often work for different employers over the period of their working life.
There is a widespread use of agency workers in the whole of the communications sector, in telecommunications, postal services and in call centres, and there are issues of differential pay and terms and conditions that the CWU deals with daily. The use of agency workers to break strikes threatens the harmony within many workplace that is already hard won.
Many skilled workers may move from agency working to permanent contracts or find that because of reorganisations they are now working for a rival company. In the communications, IT and call centre sector it is common for employees to be TUPE’d when particular contracts are won and lost. People often find themselves working for a different employer though they continue to perform the same functions. If new colleagues have previously been used by employers to break strikes this would be a recipe for very bad employee relations that even the most skilled operational manager or HR consultant would have difficulty dealing with.
Secondary or solidarity action is currently outlawed for employees in the UK. We do not have the right to take action on behalf of other workers. This is an outstanding injustice that has been kept off the political agenda and ignored for too long. Now the pendulum has swung so far the other way with this proposed strikebreakers charter that many do not see this for the highly ideological move that it is. The undercutting of pay rates and terms and conditions is the long term aim of this (and other) aspects of the Tory Trade Union Bill. They are, in reality, legislating for cheap labour.
We must kill this bill and renew the case for trade union freedom for all workers in the UK.
To join the campaign to stop the Trade Union Bill, go to www.ourvoiceatwork.org.uk.