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Railway strikes show that Tories have moved on since promising to defend workers’ rights Business

Written by Javed Iqbal

When P&O Ferries bypassed unions and replaced 800 seafarers with temporary workers in March, the Prime Minister said, Boris Johnson, said his government would “defend the rights of British workers”, and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps introduced new rules that would ensure workers are “not undercut by employers”, he said. Three months later, the melody is very different.

New laws announced by the government on Thursday are intended to do so easier for employers to use temps to break strikes. The draft law also proposes quadrupling fines for unions for carrying out illegal strikes – from £ 250,000 to £ 1m for the largest unions.

The measures, which the government set up as a direct response to the railway strikes that are taking place across the country this week, are above all a piece of political theater that pits the ministers against them, the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, accuses of “holding the country to ransom”. But are they a real threat to the right to strike?

In an unusual party political press releasesaid the Department for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy that the changes would “minimize the negative and unfair impact of strikes on the UK public”, suggesting that it does not hold the right to strike high, even though it is codified on its website. But even in these terms, there are several reasons why the changes may not work.

First, higher penalties are something of a red herring because illegal strikes are already vanishingly rare given existing penalties.

Second, unemployment in the UK has remained at a low for almost 40 years, at 3.8%. There were 1.7 million job vacancies in the UK in early June, according to the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), a lobbying group for recruiters. Large employers are already complaints about lack of qualifications so it will be very difficult – and probably very expensive – to find a stock of temps who can step in at short notice. (One option under previous Conservative governments could have been to bring in workers from the EU. That’s probably not what Johnson’s government is planning).

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In the long run, the changes may not even prevent a repeat of the railway strikes. It is unclear how happy voters would be with highly educated public safety roles (such as running 400-ton trains at 120 km / h) performed by temps. Higher-skilled workers will almost always have some sort of leverage over employers (albeit with the threat of automation always lurking).

But in the long run, the proposed changes will tip the balance of power away from the workers and to the benefit of the employers. The REC chief, Neil Carberry, argued that it could force the agency’s staff into the impossible situation of being told to cross the strike. It is in the lower educated, less paid end of the labor market, at e.g. warehouses and on transport depots that workers are most likely to be set up against workers.

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Javed Iqbal

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