Government defends use of agency staff during strikes

Rail minister Wendy Morton has told MPs that the use of agency workers will reduce the effects of strikes. The next national rail strike is set to take place on 27 July, when the RMT stages its fourth walkout in the long-running dispute about job security and pay.

Labour MP Dan Carden asked if transport secretary Grant Shapps ‘will make an assessment of the potential implications of unskilled staff being used to fill skilled roles during periods of industrial action in the rail industry; and whether his Department has provided guidance to rail companies on this subject’.

Rail minister Wendy Morton replied: ‘The use of agency and temporary workers in the rail sector is not new and there is existing general guidance on the use of agency workers available.

‘The proposed change in law, which will apply across all sectors, is designed to minimise the negative impact of strikes on the public by providing employers with more flexibility during periods of industrial action. It would help mitigate against the impact of future rail strikes by allowing trained, temporary workers to carry out crucial roles to keep trains moving.

‘However, train operating companies – and all employers – will still be obliged to comply with existing health and safety regulations and contractual obligations designed to keep both employees and the public safe. Where temporary agency workers are used, they must of course be qualified and trained to safely and efficiently undertake the work in question. This development means that where possible and appropriate, temporary agency workers could be used to support services during times of industrial action, which is good news for passengers and those who rely upon the railway.’

The plan has been criticised on the grounds that safety-critical railway staff take time to train. Drivers, in particular, need a year to qualify.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has dismissed the idea of quickly replacing drivers and signallers with temporary staff as ‘a load of puff and hyperbole’, while TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has said: ‘These plans are a deliberate attempt to undermine the right to strike and to reduce workers’ bargaining power. Bringing in less qualified agency staff to deliver important services will endanger public safety, worsen disputes and poison industrial relations.’

It is not yet clear what jobs agency staff could be hired to fill during railway strikes.