Trade unions in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, representing more than 20 million people overall, have joined with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in voicing opposition to the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.
The bill, which is currently in its second reading in the House of Lords, having already completed passage through the House of Commons, has been sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Its aim is to make provisions for minimum service levels during strike action among certain services, amending the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.
If successful, the bill would restrict the protection of trade unions in relation to strikes in certain sectors, as well as restricting the automatic protection of employees from unfair dismissal where the provision has been made for minimum service levels. It would enable employers in affected sectors to issue work notices to require minimum levels to be delivered.
The sectors in question include health, fire and rescue, education, transport and border security.
Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Grant Shapps said: “The Government firmly believes that the ability to strike is an important element of industrial relations in the UK. That ability is rightly protected by law, and we understand that an element of disruption is likely with any strike.
“However, we also need to maintain a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the rights of the public, who work hard and expect the essential services that they pay for to be there when they need them.
“We must be able to have confidence that when strikes occur, people’s lives and livelihoods are not put at undue risk. As has become clear from recent industrial action, that is not always the case, so we need a safety net in place to ensure that the public do not become collateral damage.”
Yasmine Ahmed, director of Human Rights Watch, said: “Britain finds itself in the grip of the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades. Inflation is at a 41-year high. Food and energy bills have skyrocketed in the last few months. Millions are struggling to cope.
“It is against this bleak backdrop that workers, including nurses, teachers, border force staff, and transport workers, have decided to take action…The right to strike is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy and a fundamental right, for example under the European Social Charter. This right gives workers a voice and allow them to display solidarity.”
The TUC, along with unions across the continent, has rejected claims that this legislation would bring the UK in line with Europe, and that its formation emulated systems in place in France, Italy and Spain.
The joint statement said: “The fundamental right to strike is protected by constitutional and other means in all other advanced European democracies.
“Unlike workers in the UK, workers in Spain, Italy, France and Germany enjoy the protection of national sectoral collective bargaining agreements setting minimum standards on workers’ rights for whole industries.
“These agreements are underpinned by the freedom to take strike action without disproportionate restrictions.”
The unions expressed concern about changes to the rules around unfair dismissal, suggesting that this could be used to threaten employees not to take part in legitimate industrial action.
Paul Nowak, general secretary at the TUC, said: “The right to strike is a fundamental freedom – but the Conservative government is attacking it in broad daylight. No one should face the sack for trying to win a better deal at work.
“This legislation would mean that when workers democratically vote to strike, they could be forced to work and sacked if they don’t comply.
“The UK already has some of the most restrictive anti-union laws in Europe. That’s why major unions in France, Spain, Germany and Italy have slammed this draconian bill. They know that the strikes bill will only serve to drag the UK even further away from European democratic norms.
“The legislation is undemocratic, unworkable and almost certainly illegal. And crucially, it could poison industrial relations and exacerbate disputes rather than help resolve them.
“With workers facing the longest and harshest wage squeeze in 200 years, the last thing working people need is for ministers to make it harder to win a decent pay rise. It’s time for ministers to drop this spiteful bill and protect the right to strike.”
Esther Lynch, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), added: “If the UK government genuinely wants to bring its industrial relations into line with European norms, they would support sectoral collective bargaining for all workers and regularly sit down for negotiations with union representatives…The best way to avoid strikes is genuine negotiation and not draconian legislation.”