Last week, Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, defended plans to allow businesses to use agency staff to plug gaps caused by striking workers. For the unions, this is tantamount to cutting them off at the knees.
Britain’s workforce has changed fundamentally since the law in question was introduced, in 2003. Agency workers are now part and parcel of everyday life in most workforces and for many employers, turning to these temporary staff will be fair game.
After all, the percentage of unionised workers has halved in a generation: from approximately 50 per cent of all workers during the 1970s to less than 25 per cent of the total UK working population now. Many people ask: is it right that a minority block of workers are able to hold the majority to ransom?
The UK has the most flexible labour market in Europe; there is a strong market for businesses which supply agency workers on short notice. But the repeal of laws preventing the use of agency workers, brought in under Tony Blair, to protect the rights of striking staff, is controversial. Even the main body supporting agency businesses, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, has come out against it.
This change will have far-reaching political, legal and logistical consequences , as well as the creation of a new political football, with agency workers at the centre.
Any Labour leader worth their salt would put repealing this law at the heart of their plans for a future workforce. Even Keir Starmer, who ducked and dodged every question over support for the strikes, would likely seek to scrap it if he was given the keys to Downing Street.
The legal repercussions could also be significant. Some staff supposed to be striking could make the decision to supply their labour to the same employer, as agency workers. It could cause divisions within the workforce and even see the return of the “scab”.
Agencies and employers would have difficult questions to answer: what protections are given to agency workers who are to defy the strike and cross picket lines? What happens if those workers or their families are targeted?
The REC and Trade Unions Congress are worried about exactly this. They point to the section of the Agencies legislation which creates a duty to ensure that any form of agency supply is not detrimental to the worker. Where would this proposed change leave the insurance premiums of agency suppliers as well as the client or end-employer?
Any agency supply would have to comply with fundamental health and safety obligations and this may not be easy. It is also true that there are, already, a lot of safety-critical roles such as trackside labour, nursing or doctors, which are carried out by agency staff. Many of these are substantive employees who choose to “top-up” their wages by doing agency work.
Those workers are, in the main, fully trained professionals but require the necessary accreditations from the agencies.
The proposals to change the rules are a crude attempt from government to redirect the narrative from a workforce struggling to keep up with a flatlining economy and spiralling inflation. But in exchange for this, they are willing to potentially expose the wellbeing of agency workers to prove a political point. Rather than taking power away from unions, it could inflame an already delicate and increasingly politicised working environment between employers, unions and workers.