The Government is considering removing current restrictions prohibiting agency workers from covering workers that are engaged in official industrial action.
It is also considering changes to the limits on the damages unions are liable to pay for strike action which is found by the court to be unlawful, which will be the first change since 1982. For some of the larger unions, the award will rise from around £250,000 up to anything in the region of £1million.
If the Government’s plans are approved, then it will be the biggest change to the law of industrial action since the Trade Union Act in 2016.
Current law on industrial action
At present the Conduct of Employment Agencies Regulations 2003 determines the legislation and restrictions that are currently in place surrounding the supply of agency workers. The regulations prevent agencies from sending staff to cover for workers that are engaged in industrial action, or to cover non-striking staff that have been re-deployed by the employer because of the industrial action.
The regulations surrounding industrial action can have a disproportionate impact, as strikes can cause severe disruption to the economy and society, which very often results in people being unable to get to work and creates challenges for employers on how to manage their employees and the workload.
Why the change now?
The Government have announced that the current restrictions are being reconsidered at present to “give business 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”.
Many employers will welcome the changes with open arms, providing their businesses with greater flexibility but there are also a number of factors they will need to consider before taking advantage of such changes.
Employers will of course still be bound by broader health and safety rules, so will need to carefully consider which agency staff, once they have crossed a picket line, have the right skill set needed to perform certain roles and whether this is practically a feasible option for them.
The proposed change in law is set to minimise the negative impact of strikes on the British public, as the workforce can continue to provide the necessary services without any further disruption.
But is this just political headlines and will the change really make a difference?
Given the current state of the employment market and real skills shortages it is difficult to see how businesses could ‘plug the gap’ left by striking staff with agency workers. Where are they going to come from?
In particularly skilled roles or roles that need a high level of health ad safety training, such as on the railway, are there going to be people waiting in the wings to get to work and keep the trains running?
It may be better for the government to spend the time working on the real issues that are causing the strikes in the first place!
If the changes are approved, they are due to come into force over the coming weeks.