UK – Trade unions launch legal challenge against government’s strike breaking agency worker regulations

21 September 2022

Eleven trade unions in the UK, coordinated by the Trades Union Congress and represented by Thompsons Solicitors LLP, yesterday began legal proceedings to protect the right to strike.

The unions – ASLEF (Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen), BFAWU (Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union), FDA, GMB, NEU (National Education Union), NUJ (National Union of Journalists), POA (Prison Officers’ Association), PCS (Public and Commercial Services Union), RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers), Unite and Usdaw (Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers) – have taken the case against the government’s recent controversial regulations which Allow agency workers to fill in for striking workers and break strikes.

The unions come from a wide range of sectors and represent millions of workers in the UK.

The unions argue that the regulations are unlawful because the then Secretary of State for Business failed to consult unions, as required by the Employment Agencies Act 1973 and because they violate fundamental trade union rights protected by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The updated regulation has been heavily criticized by unions, agency employers, and parliamentarians with recruitment trade bodies and trade unions also issuing warnings that it could be in breach of international law.

The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) has described the proposals as “unworkable”.

The Lords Committee charged with scrutinising the legislation said “the lack of robust evidence and the expected limited net benefit raise questions as to the practical effectiveness and benefit” of the new laws.

TUC affiliated unions Unison and Nasuwt are also launching separate individual legal cases against the government’s agency worker regulations.

Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary, said, “The right to strike is a fundamental British liberty. But the government is attacking it in broad daylight. Threatening this right tilts the balance of power too far towards employers. It means workers can’t stand up for decent services and safety at work – or defend their jobs and pay.”

Ministers failed to consult with unions, as the law requires. And restricting the freedom to strike is a breach of international law,” O’Grady added. “That’s why unions are coming together to challenge this change in the courts. Workers need stronger legal protections and more power in the workplace to defend their living standards – not less.”

The TUC also recently reported the UK government to the UN workers’ rights watchdog, the International Labor Organization (ILO), over the recent spate of anti-union and anti-worker legislation and proposals, including the government’s agency worker regulations, which it says are in breach of international law.

According to the TUC, the new laws will worsen industrial disputes, undermine the fundamental right to strike and could endanger public safety if agency staff are required to fill safety critical roles but haven’t been fully trained.

Richard Arthur, Head of Trade Union Law at Thompsons Solicitors LLP, said: “The right to strike is respected and protected by international law including the Conventions of the ILO, an agency of the United Nations, and the European Convention on Human Rights.”

“The conservative government should face up to its legal obligations under both domestic and international law, instead of forever trying to undermine the internationally recognized right to strike,” Arthur said.

A UK government spokesperson told City AM, “We make no apology for taking action so that essential services are run as effectively as possible. Allowing businesses to supply skilled agency workers to plug staffing gaps does not mandate employment businesses to do this, rather this gives employers more freedom to find trained staff in the face of strike action if they choose to.”

Prime Minister Liz Truss earlier this summer responded to strikes with a pledge of “tough and decisive action to limit trade unions’ ability to paralyse our economy” within her first 30 days of taking office, although that promise may have been delayed by the mourning period. for the Queen, according to The Guardian. The chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, and the business secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, have also repeatedly promised action to weaken unions’ power.

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