Anti-strikes law would 'strip workers of unfair dismissal protections', watchdog warns
The anti-strikes bill could be in breach of international law and strip workers of unfair dismissal protections, the equalities watchdog has warned.
The government is facing renewed calls to drop the "nasty" Minimum Service Legislation (MSL) bill following a scathing report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
The EHRC said it is "concerned that an employee would lose automatic unfair dismissal protection" if they fail to comply with a notice ordering them to work on days of industrial action.
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The organisation warned staff could also be sacked if their trade union has failed to take reasonable steps to ensure minimum service levels are in place during a strike, as "they would not know" before participating in a walkout if that is the case or not.
Paul Nowak, general secretary of the TUC, said: "The EHRC is right to warn that this draconian legislation could see striking workers losing a vital right - protection from unfair dismissal.
"The Conservatives are trying to keep people in the dark about the true nature of this legislation. But make no mistake - this bill is undemocratic, unworkable and almost certainly illegal."
Mr Nowak accused the government of launching a "brazen attack" on workers' rights which will likely "poison industrial relations and exacerbate disputes rather than help resolve them".
"It's time for ministers to protect the fundamental right to strike and drop this nasty bill," he said.
What does the anti-strikes bill mean?
Under the government's draft Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, the right to strike would be restricted by imposing "minimum service levels".
That means if the bill becomes law, some trade union members would be required to continue working during a strike.
The bill does not set out what the minimum service levels would be for each industry, but they could include maintaining core service provision in emergency services and ensuring key transport, travel and trade routes don't completely shut down on strike days.
The government has argued the legislation is necessary to ensure minimum safety levels at a time of widespread industrial action.
But the plans have drawn backlash from unions and opposition MPs.
Critics say, thanks to the proposed changes, bosses would be legally able to fire employees who ignore a "work notice" ordering them to work on days of industrial action.
The EHRC contrasted this with similar laws in Italy, where "legislation provides that an individual cannot be dismissed for failing to comply with a Minimum Service Level agreement".
It said the bill in its current form raises "several human rights considerations", specifically in relation to Article 4 (Prohibition of Slavery and Forced Labour), Article 11 (Freedom of Assembly and Association) and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The report also criticised ministers for failing to properly consult on the legislation with worker and employer organisations.
"It is not clear why this more collaborative approach - as practised in some states in Europe - was not pursued in the current bill," the watchdog said.
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The intervention comes days after the Joint Committee on Human Rights criticised the bill "for failing to meet human rights obligations".
Last week, a House of Lords report also expressed concerns the bill would give ministers too much power while providing virtually no detail on what counts as minimum service.
There was a further backlash when the Regulatory Policy Committee, another independent watchdog, ruled the government's impact assessment of the legislation was "not fit for purpose" in a damning report last month.
And in January, 50 civil liberty groups - including Oxfam and Human Rights Watch - warned the bill would allow "a further significant and unjustified intrusion by the state into the freedom of association and assembly".
A government spokesperson said: "The purpose of this legislation is to protect the lives and livelihoods of the public and ensure they can continue to access vital public services.
"We note this report and will consider it in full, but the government needs to maintain a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the rights of the public, who work hard and expect essential services to be there when they need them."