The Trade Union Congress (TUC) is to report the UK Government to the UN workers’ rights watchdog over the Strike Act. This law governing industrial action enable minimum service levels to be set in key sectors; if these workers refuse to work, they could face being sacked.
This announcement comes as further NHS strikes are planned for the next few weeks.
The Strike Act
As 48 unions gathered for the TUC’s 155th annual congress this week, the TUC announced it would be reporting the Government to the International Labour Organization (ILO) due to the nature of the Strike Act.
The Government said the new rules under this Bill “protect the lives and livelihoods of the general public” as well as access to public services. Once implemented, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act will apply to a wide range of workers, including those in the rail industry and emergency services.
The Government pointed to research which suggested 600,000 medical appointments have been rescheduled over the past year, and £1.2bn in output has been lost, due to strikes. Under the new law, which will apply to England, Scotland and Wales, the government would set minimum service levels after a consultation. Employers will then be able to issue a “work notice” to unions, setting out who is required to work during a strike.
Under the legislation, there would be no automatic protection from unfair dismissal for an employee who is told to work through a notice but chooses to strike. If a strike is not conducted in accordance with the new rules, employers would be also be able to sue unions for losses.
The Government took forward the legislation following a year of unprecedented industrial action by hundreds of thousands of workers, including nurses, teachers, civil servants and railway staff. A spokeswoman for the Government said: “The purpose of this legislation is to protect the lives and livelihoods of the general public and ensure they can continue to access vital public services during strikes.”
She added: “The legislation does not remove the ability to strike, but people expect the government to act in circumstances where their rights and freedoms are being disproportionately impacted, and that’s what we are doing with this Bill.”
A public consultation is under way into how the laws, which received Royal Assent in July, will be implemented by employers, but trade unions may well challenge them in the courts.
The right to strike
TUC general secretary, Paul Nowak, stated that this legislation falls short of international legal standards and described it as a “pernicious” and “undemocratic” and “unworkable” mechanism designed to escalate industrial tensions, rather than resolve them.
“They’re the product of a desperate Conservative government spoiling for a fight with unions to distract from their dire economic record. Unions defeated the Government in the High Court over the unlawful use of agency workers during strikes. We are determined to win again” Nowak Contended.
Nowak also asserted that the “ILO has already slapped down the UK government and ordered it to make sure existing and prospective legislation is in line with ILO standards”.
In addition, the European Trade Union Confederation general secretary Esther Lynch has warned that the UK could be an international outlier due to labour standards as the Strike Act could breach two commitments established in the UK-EU trade agreement. One being the maintenance of a level playing field including on labour standards, and another being respecting fundamental international labour organisation conventions.
“The Strikes Act is a fundamental attack on the right to strike and will make the UK an international outlier on trade union rights and labour standards. “Rather than bringing the UK in line with its European partners – these draconian laws will cut it adrift. Let me by crystal clear. It is already harder for working people in the UK to take strike action than in any other Western European country“.Esther Lynch
The next election
Workers’ rights are to be a major topic at the next election, with Nowak claiming that workers’ rights are on the ballot paper. He said that the Strike Act is the “nadir of the Conservatives’ wretched record on living standards and rights at work” noting a rise in insecure work, unfair dismissals and tribunal fees.
From the opposite side of the commons, the Labour Party has asserted that they will offer a “transformative new deal” as opposed to “attacking people at work during a living standard crisis”
This deal includes an employment bill in the first 100 days in government, day one employment rights such as protection from unfair dismissal, banning fire and rehire and the abuse of zero hour contracts and repealing the Strike Act.
The Strike Act has faced fierce opposition from unions. Given the Government’s refusal to sit down with the unions and negotiate, harsh laws will understandably cause further frustration among workers.