Unions slam government's 'reckless' plan to replace striking staff with agency workers

ITV News' David Wood spoke to a union boss who described the government's plan as a 'threat'

Unions have hit out over suggested legal changes to allow agency workers to fill in for striking staff, branding the government as “desperate to distract from its numerous failings”.

The plan emerged in response to mass rail strikes later this month which will cripple train services because of disputes over pay, jobs, pensions and conditions.

The move would involve reversing a restriction preventing employers from hiring agency workers to cover for striking staff, and would apply to all sectors, according to The Sunday Telegraph.

This was promised in the Tory manifesto in 2015, which stated: “We will… repeal nonsensical restrictions banning employers from hiring agency staff to provide essential cover during strikes.”

Mr Shapps told the newspaper any legal intervention would not affect “this particular set of strikes” in June, but should the action continue, then “further measures certainly would come in during this particular dispute, if it can’t be resolved”.

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“I’ll be saying more about this. But we will be looking at the full suite of modernisation that’s required,” he said.

“The country must not continue to be held to ransom. These strikes are incredibly premature and we will use every possible lever to ensure that the public is protected in the future in particular".

Plans to make the legal adjustment are reportedly being drawn up by officials in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

TUC deputy general secretary Paul Nowak said the move would "undermine the right to strike and be extremely reckless".

He insisted Prime Minister Boris Johnson is using the move to throw "red meat to his rebellious backbenchers to try and shore up his position".

The proposed legislation would not be in place ahead of planned strikes later in June, as ITV News Political Correspondent David Wood explains

“This government is desperate to distract from its numerous failings by picking a fight with unions," he said.

“Bringing in less qualified and experienced staff to deliver important services would create genuine safety risks for the public and for the workforce.

“Using agency workers to try and break strikes would put these workers in an appalling situation, worsen disputes and poison industrial relations."

“Having repeatedly promised a high-wage economy, ministers now seem determined to reduce workers’ bargaining power and to make it harder for working people to win fair pay and conditions," he added.

Rail, Maritime and Transport union general secretary Mick Lynch said: “Grant Shapps needs to stop smearing the RMT and unshackle the rail operating companies so they can come to a negotiated settlement that can end this dispute.

'I wouldn't feel safe going on a train with an agency worker acting as signaller that day,' Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves told ITV News

“Railway workers voted overwhelmingly for strike action in defence of their jobs and for a pay rise that deals with the rising cost of living.

“It is insulting to them to suggest they do not understand the issues that affect their daily lives or cannot make a democratic decision by themselves.

“We already have the most restrictive anti-democratic trade union laws in western Europe and if the Government attempts to reduce our rights further, the RMT along with the rest of the trade union movement will mount the fiercest resistance possible.”

Labour’s Rachel Reeves said although she does not want to see strikes, she insisted it is "not too late" to avert them - but she accused the government of failing to properly negotiate with unions and treating rail staff with "little respect".

"I wouldn't feel safe going on a train with an agency worker acting as signaller that day - that is not a way to resolve these problems. Proper dialogue is," she told ITV News.

Writing in The Sun on Sunday, Mr Shapps said workers could also be banned from working overtime to make back pay lost during industrial action.

It is understood that Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has not ruled out a legal change. Credit: PA

It comes after he told The Sunday Telegraph in May that ministers were looking at drawing up laws which would make industrial action illegal unless a certain number of staff are working.

Sharon Graham, Unite general secretary said: “If the government continue to fly this ‘false flag’, then the trade union movement must be ready to respond.

“Workers have had enough of being told by the rich and powerful to meekly accept what they are given. It is profiteering corporations, not ordinary workers who are driving the latest surge In inflation and making fools of us all."

“Why is it OK for faceless corporations to rip off the public through price gouging but not for workers to take action to defend their living standards?" she added.

Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said: “The government’s focus should be on a plan to help the country through the cost-of-living crisis, not engineering a distracting spat with unions.

“Using agency workers isn’t safe and only serves to sour relations between employers and their employees.”