Voices: The government’s answer to breaking the rail strikes could put lives in danger

·4-min read
Their ploy would usher in the replacement of workers (Getty)
Their ploy would usher in the replacement of workers (Getty)

Not content with wreaking havoc in Downing Street as Boris Johnson’s government disintegrates, his remaining ministers are ploughing on with dangerous and ill thought through plans that would further damage our country and pose a threat to passengers, pupils and patients.

As members of the drivers’ union Aslef at eight train companies vote to walk out in a dispute over pay, MPs are preparing to debate a proposal from ministers to give a green light to draft agency workers to break industrial action. This government have sought to smuggle this under the parliamentary radar – but public safety is at stake.

Their ploy would usher in the replacement of workers exercising their right to strike over pay with temps – including train drivers, signal operators, teachers and frontline health and care staff.

Despite the departure of the employment minister in charge of this proposal from his role last week – and amidst the biggest mass ministerial resignation in British political history – Boris Johnson’s dying government is pushing on regardless, drafting in a rookie minister late on Friday afternoon in an attempt to push through their shoddy plan today.

Let’s be clear – a minister with 20 years experience – let alone one in the job five minutes – would struggle to sell this low-grade, divisive piece of legislation. The plot to replace striking workers with untrained agency staff is a recipe for disaster.

Business leaders oppose it as much as unions do. The recruitment and employment confederation, which represents over 3,000 agency worker businesses, has warned the proposal is utterly impractical, counter-productive and puts people’s safety at risk.

The public should not be put in this position, and we don’t have to wait to see what could happen. We have already caught a glimpse, and it’s scary. When P&O Ferries replaced its experienced workforce earlier this year with an agency crew, it led to a record 31 separate safety failings being found, including critical failings such as fire and life boards. At the time, the transport secretary lined up to condemn P&O. Yet, now the government is pushing to legalise the very practice.

In the US, strike-breaking agency workers produced defective tires at Firestone, which were linked to 271 fatalities and more than 800 injuries.

In the UK some will well remember Railtrack – the private cowboy outfit that ran the rail infrastructure at the behest of a Tory government in the 1990s – and the carnage caused by their incompetence.

The dozens of deaths and thousands of injuries at rail disasters such as Ladbroke Grove, Southall, Potters Bar and Selby are a testament to the unacceptable risks of past mistakes. This ministerial wheeze for a repeat is as foolish as it is dangerous. It would put passenger safety on our railways and the wider public at risk of harm. It is a downright dereliction of duty by ministers.

There is no chance that thousands of signallers and train drivers could be replaced overnight by agency workers who simply don’t exist. Where are the temps who could operate 25,000-volt control centres or signal 140mph high-speed trains? How could the travelling public have any confidence in their safety?

It doesn’t end there. The proposal is also anti-business. It would cost millions in HR and onboarding costs, threatens agency firms’ reputations and risks businesses’ relationships with their workforce.

To put it simply, there aren’t enough agency workers to fill in. The government’s own impact assessment suggests only 22 per cent of strike days could even be filled by agency workers. Teaching is just one example - there aren’t currently the supply teachers to cover the staff shortages already caused by the Tories let alone enough to cover industrial action days.

This is a flagrant attempt by a government to divert attention away from the fact that it is rudderless and leaderless and has no plans to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, economic uncertainty or for industrial relations.

Nobody wants strikes to take place, least of all the workers who forego a day’s pay. But this government has shown it will do anything else to avoid the negotiating table and find a resolution to disputes.

This government is taking us on a race to the bottom, flouting international standards, eroding employment rights and inflaming industrial tensions.

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We need to oppose this measure and stand up for safety.

In 2015, when the government first examined the idea of repealing regulations to let agency workers break strikes, the regulatory policy committee was unequivocal. This is “not fit for purpose”, it said.

The rookie minister charged with ramming through this embarrassment of a proposal must now say what has changed.

Breaking strikes with untrained agency workers is a dangerous Tory fantasy, in place of real solutions. It’s anti-business, anti-worker and threatens public safety. Labour will be leading the opposition to it.

Angela Rayner is deputy leader of the Labour Party

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