UK unions challenge rules allowing agency staff to cover for strikers

By Sam Tobin

LONDON (Reuters) - Thirteen British trade unions told London's High Court on Wednesday that the British government is breaching union rights over regulations allowing companies to hire agency staff to fill in for striking workers.

Last year during a wave of disputes over pay and conditions, the Conservative government changed rules to make it easier for businesses to use temporary staff during industrial action.

Then-business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the changes would remove "burdensome, 1970s-style restrictions" preventing employment agencies from supplying workers to replace those on strike, which was previously a criminal offence.

But unions say the changes could worsen industrial disputes and endanger public safety if agency staff are required to fill safety-critical roles without being fully trained.

The two-day High Court hearing comes as two unions representing National Health Service staff plan further industrial action and four teaching unions consider coordinated strikes in England.

Hundreds of thousands of workers across Britain are at pay loggerheads with employers as inflation hovers around 40-year-highs of about 10%, prompting the most significant wave of industrial action since the 1980s.

Lawyers for the 13 unions, which represent around three million workers, argued on Wednesday that the government made the changes allowing agency workers to cover for strikers without consulting unions.

Oliver Segal, a lawyer representing 11 unions, said in court filings that the government instead relied on a 2015 consultation, which pre-dated Brexit, the COVID pandemic and the cost of living crisis.

However, the government argued the new rules were "a modest amendment to the law" which does not interfere with unions' right to strike.

Government lawyer Daniel Stilitz said in court filings that there was no need to "re-run" its previous consultation as a new consultation would not raise new issues because those who opposed the policy in 2015 still do so now.

(Reporting by Sam Tobin; editing by Mark Heinrich)