Businesses can now provide skilled agency workers to plug staffing gaps caused by strike action under changes to the law coming into force on Thursday, the government has announced.
Ministers said they have worked at speed to repeal trade union laws that restrict employment businesses from providing temporary agency workers to fill vacant positions caused by staff striking.
The move follows a wave of strikes by railway workers in recent weeks in a bitter dispute over jobs, pay and conditions, with more planned in the coming weeks.
This week’s below-inflation pay awards for public sector workers has also sparked strike warnings.
Unions and Labour have criticised changing the law.
From today, businesses exposed to disruption caused by strike action will be able to tap into skilled, temporary workers to provide the services that allow honest, hardworking people to get on with their lives. That’s good news for our society and for our economy
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng
The government said that, from Thursday, businesses most affected by industrial action will be able to call upon skilled, temporary staff at short notice to fill essential positions.
“This will help to mitigate the disproportionate impact strike action can have both on the UK economy and society by allowing crucial services, that we all use on a daily basis, to continue functioning,” it said.
“Today’s change in the law will apply across all sectors; for example, in education where strike action can force parents to stay at home with their children rather than go to work.”
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “In light of militant trade union action threatening to bring vital public services to a standstill, we have moved at speed to repeal these burdensome, 1970s-style restrictions.
“From today, businesses exposed to disruption caused by strike action will be able to tap into skilled, temporary workers to provide the services that allow honest, hardworking people to get on with their lives. That’s good news for our society and for our economy.”
For too long, unions have been able to hold the country to ransom with the threat of industrial action, but this vital reform means any future strikes will cause less disruption and allow hardworking people to continue with their day-to-day lives
Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “While next week’s rail strikes will come too soon to benefit from this legislation, it’s an important milestone reflecting the government’s determination to minimise the power of union bosses.
“For too long, unions have been able to hold the country to ransom with the threat of industrial action, but this vital reform means any future strikes will cause less disruption and allow hardworking people to continue with their day-to-day lives.”
The government has also changed the law to raise the maximum damages that courts can award against a union when strike action has been found to be unlawful.
For the biggest unions, the maximum award will rise from £250,000 to £1 million.
The changes apply across England, Scotland and Wales.
Kwasi, I think you'll find that @Conservatives have made grinding our economy to a halt a speciality subject!
This, however, is just the latest step in a clampdown on democratic rights which every trades unionist and democrat must oppose. https://t.co/JnZ7R6ikxb
— RMT (@RMTunion) July 21, 2022
Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union general secretary Mick Lynch said: “This is the latest step in a clampdown on democratic dissent which every trades unionist and democrat must oppose.
“The use of agency labour to break strikes is not only unethical and morally reprehensible, it is totally impracticable.
“Agency workers will not have the skill, training or relevant competences to drive a train, to do complex maintenance work on the track, to signal trains, or to do a whole host of safety-critical work on the network.
“Instead of trying to reduce trade union rights which are already the worst in western Europe, the Government should be unshackling Network Rail and the train operating companies so we can secure a negotiated settlement on the railways.”