Ministers press on with ‘cynical’ plan to let agency staff replace striking workers

Unions and recruiters have condemned government moves to allow agency workers to replace striking staff, saying it would “poison” relations and endanger safety.

The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, said the government was pressing ahead with a change in the law, as rail workers walked out for the second of two 24-hour strikes this week. Some bus workers and nurses are also set to strike, while teachers may take industrial action this year.

Under current employment laws, businesses cannot supply agency workers to fill in for striking employees, which the government says would lessen their impact “on hardworking commuters and the economy”.

The TUC said it was a cynical and unworkable move, while rail unions dismissed it as “playing to the gallery”. Network Rail has said most of the roles which have most affected train services during the strike, particularly signalling, can not be filled by agency staff.

Kwarteng said unions were “holding the country to ransom” and the situation was not sustainable. “Repealing these 1970s-era restrictions will give businesses freedom to access fully skilled staff at speed, all while allowing people to get on with their lives uninterrupted to help keep the economy ticking,” he said.

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “Reforms such as this legislation are vital and will ensure any future strikes will cause even less disruption and allow adaptable, flexible, fully skilled staff to continue working throughout.”

The government is also lifting the maximum damages that can be imposed on unions for “unlawful” strikes, allowing judges to impose £1m instead of £250,000 charges.

The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “The government should be getting people around the table to find a fair resolution to this rail dispute. But ministers are more interested in cynically picking a fight with unions than reaching a negotiated settlement.

“Having slammed P&O for replacing experienced workers with agency staff, Grant Shapps is using the same playbook. These plans are a deliberate attempt to undermine the right to strike and to reduce workers’ bargaining power.

“Bringing in less qualified agency staff to deliver important services will endanger public safety, worsen disputes and poison industrial relations.”

She said that agency staff would be put in “an appalling and impossible situation”.

The head of the UK’s recruitment body said the changes were being made without consultation and urged the government to think again.

Neil Carberry, the chief executive of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC), said: “It is not something agencies want, and will not achieve the goals the government claims.”

He added: “This is a fundamental change to the regulations that govern recruitment businesses, and the industry is strongly opposed to it – it is not a pro-business move.

“It will also not provide the workers that government wants, and it puts agencies and agency workers in a very difficult position, with potential health and safety and reputational risks to consider.”

Joanne Galbraith-Marten, the director of employment relations and legal services at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “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.”

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