'In fast-tracking the Bill, the beleaguered Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is resuscitating the ghost of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher'
Prem Sikka is an Emeritus Professor of Accounting at the University of Essex and the University of Sheffield, a Labour member of the House of Lords, and Contributing Editor at Left Foot Forward.
This week around 500,000 British workers took to the streets to demand better wages and preserve their right to strike. Workers were protesting against the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which conscripts workers, forces trade unions to break strikes and enables employers to sack workers without any compensation or legal right of appeal. The Bill has not been preceded by any public consultation. It is not accompanied by the usual impact assessment. So, the government has no idea of the possible implications of the proposed law.
The Bill has been rushed through the House of Commons and passed by 315 votes to 246, in just over five hours of debate and perfunctory scrutiny. Most of the amendments tabled by concerned legislators were not debated and crucial questions about the operations of the Bill were not answered. One of the worst aspects of the Bill is that it is woefully short on detail and authorises the Minister to make rules, without parliament being able to change them.
In fast-tracking the Bill, the beleaguered Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is resuscitating the ghost of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and thinks that attacking workers and trade unions is somehow the key to longevity in power. He has fatally misjudged the mood of the nation. Nurses, doctors, teachers, transport workers and others worked during the lockdowns and saved the economy from collapse. They were clapped and praised. But when they asked for an inflation-matching pay rise, the government’s spin-machine began portraying them as a threat. People know better and are supporting striking workers.
The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill now moves to the House of Lords. The Conservatives are the largest party in the Lords, but do not have a majority. Therefore, the government would struggle to curtail debate. The Bill could be defeated or seriously changed, setting off a ping-pong between the two Houses. Ultimately, the House of Lords, which is unelected, has to yield to the elected House of Commons. Nevertheless, it could force Ministers to answer some vital questions.
The Bill does not deal with practicalities. So let us look at the transport sector, which is specifically covered by the Bill. Taxis are a vital part of transport in cities. Many taxi drivers are self-employed. They are members of trade unions and have taken part in protests and strikes. Under the Bill, in the event of a strike, the Minister will decide the ‘minimum’ service levels (MSL) and instruct employers to secure it. The employers, in turn, are required to select workers for the provision of MSL and order trade unions to ensure that the selected individuals work on the required dates. Those refusing can be sacked. Now the problem is that there is no employer. What are taxi-drivers to do? Sack themselves! How can trade unions force self-employed individuals to work, who can take time off whenever they want to, or for that matter any person to work if they do not wish to work?
Education and healthcare sectors are also specifically covered by the Bill. Due to staff shortages, schools and hospitals make heavy use of agency staff. Many teachers, nurses and doctors are unionised and work through agencies. They have no contract of employment directly with the school or the hospital. They can refuse to cross picket-lines, especially as that may have an adverse effect on their relationship with others working alongside them. Individuals on zero-hour contracts can also do the same. How can employers select individuals to provide minimum service when they have no contractual relationship with them? How can a union order self-employed members to work? Even if the individuals are employed, they can refuse to cross picket-lines. The selected individuals can always report sick on selected dates.
Just how many doctors, nurses, paramedics, teachers, pilots, train drivers, engineers and nuclear power experts can employers sack and still remain viable? The UK does not have a surplus pool of skilled labour which can be tapped to provide replacements for sacked workers.
Whilst employers and workers may have divergent interests, they also have common interests around the well-being of the business entity. Therefore, they co-operate and unions already provide minimum service levels. However, the Bill destroys that co-operation by souring industrial relations.
There are also major legal issues. The Bill seems to violate Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Labour Organization’s Convention 87 which protects the right to strike. Therefore, the Bill is likely to face legal challenges.
Undeterred, the government in now using the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill to remove or dilute workers’ rights to paid holidays, sick pay, maternity/paternity rights, equal pay, length of working week, protection from discrimination, as well as laws relating to environmental protections. Its ultimate aim is make the UK a low wage/cost economy where vital matters are left to the whims of corporations. This mythical free-market dogma is a recipe for social strife and misery.