This Summer, amidst rising inflation and a cost-of-living crisis, the UK has seen a resurgence in trade union activity as disputes between employers and employees over real-term pay cuts emerge across the UK.
For example, members of the RMT took part in the biggest rail strikes in 30 years in June 2022 over pay conditions and changes to working patterns.

Threat of industrial action

There has also been the threat of industrial action by airport check-in and ground staff as well as bus and tram drivers (and in various other industries).

The disruptions caused by industrial action is hitting the hospitality sector hard, just as hospitality businesses have started to recover from the effects of the pandemic. Some hospitality businesses have reported losing around half a million pounds worth of bookings, whilst others have seen the majority of their revenue – some up to 70% - disappear from the lack of commuters stopping for their morning coffee. London has seen particular difficulties with Underground strike action also falling at the same time as rail strikes.

It is anticipated the strikes will cost the hospitality industry around £540m and up to a 20% drop in sales.

Temporary agency staff

In an attempt to mitigate the impact of the strikes, the government has proposed allowing businesses to use temporary agency staff to fill the staffing gaps left by striking employees. The laws banning such practices will be repealed and will apply to all sectors.

This has been broadly welcomed by the industry, although there is concern that it may only have limited effect as it would only be practicable for low-skilled jobs such as station staff and cleaners to be replaced in practice. Many, though, feel that the current law, which has been in place since 1973, is antiquated and in need of reform given the current climate.

Engaging Temporary Staff During Strikes

For the time being, to mitigate shortages in staffing caused by workers taking industrial action, businesses may reassign existing staff to perform the roles of those on strike or directly hire replacements on a temporary basis. However, it is a criminal offence for agencies to supply temporary workers to perform the duties of employees who are taking part in official industrial action.

Tensions between trade unions and employers

Following the proposed removal of this restriction, businesses will still need to ensure that they use workers with the necessary skills and qualifications to meet health and safety obligations. However, they will not need to engage temporary workers directly.

Critics of this amendment argue that the process of replacing workers with agency staff will heighten tensions between trade unions and employers and would negatively affect the reputations of recruitment businesses. However, the government has stated that these changes will not prevent a worker’s ability to strike and that agency workers are under no obligation to accept a role replacing staff during strikes.

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