Sunak’s anti-union laws would make UK ‘international outlier’, lawyers say

<span>Photograph: WPA/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

Rishi Sunak’s new anti-trade union legislation would make the UK one of the most difficult countries in the democratic world in which to go on strike and may breach treaty obligations, a group of top employment lawyers have said.

The 10 academic experts in employment law said the proposed laws to enforce “minimum service levels” in sectors such as health, transport and schools would make the UK an “international outlier” among comparable countries.

The government has claimed the laws bring the UK into line with other countries in Europe that require minimum levels of service during industrial action.

However, the experts said Sunak’s laws represented a “departure from established norms and treaty obligations”.

“It would make Great Britain an outlier among comparable countries,” they said. “If ministers are keen to learn from overseas, a more promising place to start would be the creation of a culture of social dialogue and balanced cooperation through the introduction of sector-wide collective bargaining, together with the clear legal recognition of a positive right to strike.”

The Department for Business and Trade has been approached for comment.

The opinion was released by the TUC, the organising body for trade unions, which has pledged to fight the new laws in the courts.

The experts, including Alan Bogg, professor of labour law at the University of Bristol, and Keith Ewing, professor of public law at King’s College London, said: “In our view the [proposed] Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act would place an unacceptable restriction on a worker’s right to take strike action to defend their terms and conditions of employment.

“It adds to an existing body of highly restrictive laws on strikes, including the Trade Union Act 2016. The cumulative effects of this legislation would place the UK well outside the mainstream of industrial relations in comparable countries.”

They said ministers would have “largely unfettered power” to impose minimum service levels and therefore determine how far workers can lawfully exercise their freedom to strike. It gives employers the ability to requisition striking workers if their sector is covered by minimum service level restrictions, and trade unions would have a duty to take reasonable steps to ensure workers comply with a directive to carry on working through industrial action.

“The proposed minimum service legislation constitutes a further departure from established norms and treaty obligations. It would make Great Britain an outlier among comparable countries,” they said.

The strikes bill, which will soon return to the House of Lords for its final stages, has angered trade unions in the middle of an extended period of industrial unrest over pay that is failing to keep pace with inflation.

If it had been in place for key public service sectors this winter, the legislation could have muted the effects of strikes for higher pay and better conditions in the health, education and transport sectors.

Related: Anti-strike bill ‘fails to meet UK’s human rights obligations’, MPs and peers say

In response to the joint statement, Paul Nowak, the general secretary of the TUC, said: “This is a damning assessment of the government’s strikes bill. Make no mistake – these new laws are a naked power grab that will allow ministers to severely restrict the right to strike.

“This spiteful legislation would mean that when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t comply.

“Compulsory work notices during strikes will place a huge strain on employer and union relations and will do nothing to help resolve disputes. The Conservatives cannot legislate away worker dissatisfaction.”

Some trade unions have been even more defiant in their opposition to the proposed new legislation, with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) calling for a concerted campaign of civil disobedience.

Last week, Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the FBU, urged a coordinated campaign among trade unions of “mass non-cooperation and non-compliance” against the minimum service levels bill.

Under the new laws, ministers would have the power to set levels of “minimum service” in the health service, fire and rescue services, education, transport, nuclear decommissioning and border security. The police, army and some prison officers are already banned from striking.

The FBU said non-compliance with the bill would be one of the most significant attempts by unions to defy employment law since the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

A Department for Business and Trade 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 must 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.”