Trade Union Bill: Recruiters warn on strike law reforms

TUC conference in Brighton Image copyright PA
Image caption The TUC is campaigning against the government's Trade Union Bill

A key aspect of government plans to reform trade union laws has come under fire from the recruitment industry.

As part of its Trade Union Bill, the government wants to end the ban on using agency workers to replace striking staff.

But the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) has told the BBC it has real concerns about the move.

The government says its reforms will end unjustified disruption to working people's lives.

There has been a ban on using agency workers in strike action since the 1970s.

The government is consulting on changing those regulations.

But Kate Shoesmith, head of policy at the REC, told the BBC: "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."

The big recruitment agencies work in countries around the world. Most have signed up to the International Labour Organisation's convention on private employment agencies.

It states that "private employment agencies should not make workers available to a user enterprise to replace workers of that enterprise who are on strike".

Image copyright PA
Image caption The TUC's Frances O'Grady says workplace safety is at stake

The UK has not signed up to the convention. But it is understood that many employment firms are keen to ensure that they are not seen to be sidestepping their international obligations.

'Duty of care'

Many are also worried about the reputational consequences of being linked to a high-profile dispute.

And Ms Shoesmith says there are concerns about supplying staff to what are often highly-charged working environments.

"Our members want to provide the best possible levels of service to their clients, but they also have a duty of care to the workers they send out on assignment," she said.

The REC says that it took soundings from its members on the proposed changes.

"The feedback is that this would be used in very few situations," it said.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills defended the proposed changes, saying they would "allow more flexibility for employers when dealing with a strike by allowing them to use agency workers to help maintain the basic elements of their business activities".

The spokesperson added: "Employers can already bring in extra staff currently to cover striking workers if they hire them directly."

Speaking at the Trades Union Congress in Brighton, the general secretary of the TUC, Frances O'Grady, highlighted the agency worker plans.

"Everyone knows that if you can just replace strikers overnight, that undermines all the power that workers have to bring their employers to the table," she said.

"Imagine the impact on the safety of whole workplaces run by untrained, inexperienced temporary staff. Think about what that would mean in education, energy or border control," she added.

Questioned about the REC's intervention, Ms O'Grady told the BBC: "It beggars belief that the government is fast-tracking these plans when the largest body representing UK recruitment agencies says they are so badly flawed.

"Ministers need to ditch these unworkable changes, which are a huge threat to the right to strike."

Follow John on Twitter @JohnMoylanBBC

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