The UN’s labour standards body has told the UK government it must make changes to highly controversial new strikes laws, which critics say threaten the fundamental rights of British workers.
The International Labour Organization (ILO), a UN agency, said the UK needed to “ensure that existing and prospective legislation is in conformity” with international rules on freedom of association, and added that the government must seek technical assistance from the agency’s experts.
The ILO also concluded the government should allow unions to electronically ballot workers – rather than relying on strictly controlled postal votes. It should also improve consultation with unions and limit government powers to ensure they “do not interfere with the autonomy and functioning of workers’ and employers’ organisations”.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) described the ILO’s conclusions, delivered last week by a committee on labour standards, as a “hugely embarrassing” reprimand for the UK government.
The TUC, the UK’s main union body, lodged a complaint against the UK government in September. The complaint alleged that ministers had taken steps to attack the right to strike, which has been protected by an ILO convention since 1948.
The TUC said it was the first time the UK had been told to seek technical assistance since 1995 under John Major’s Conservative government. The conclusions were delivered by a committee that also considered alleged issues in authoritarian regimes such as El Salvador, Gabon and Turkmenistan.
The ILO intervention comes ahead of the first anniversary of the biggest wave of industrial action seen in Britain in three decades. During the unrest, which began on 21 June 2022 with a strike by rail workers, workers across the private and public sector have protested for higher pay and better conditions, , with warehouse and port workers, Royal Mail employees, junior doctors, teachers and even barristers taking action.
The committee’s conclusions represent a blow to the UK government, which had repeatedly denied accusations of making deliberate attacks on the right to strike, and had even argued that the ILO backed its rules.
Paul Nowak, the TUC’s general secretary, said: “This is hugely embarrassing for the Conservative government and speaks to the scale of anti-union attacks on their watch.
“The right to strike is a fundamental freedom. But the Conservatives are attacking it in broad daylight with the draconian strikes bill.”
The government’s latest strikes legislation, the strikes (minimum service levels) bill, is in its final stages in parliament. The bill, led by the former business minister Grant Shapps, threatens to make attendance at work compulsory throughout industrial action in several sectors, including 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.
Newer restrictions also include increasing the minimum notice period for industrial action from two weeks to four, and raising the threshold for industrial action to support from 50% of members. MPs last year also voted through a law to allow companies to employ agency workers to replace striking staff.
The new laws have faced a barrage of criticism from unions, opposition politicians, parliament’s joint committee on human rights and even employers. Business groups have argued against several of the changes, including one law allowing companies to employ agency workers to replace striking workers.
“The truth is that the UK already has some of the most restrictive trade union laws in Europe,” said Nowak. “These new anti-strike curbs will poison industrial relations and do nothing to resolve current disputes.”
In response to the committee, the UK’s representative agreed to report back on progress in addressing the issues by 1 September.
A government spokesperson said: “The right to join a union and organise is protected in law, but the British people also expect the government to act in circumstances where their rights and freedoms are being disproportionately impacted by strikes.
“That is why we have introduced legislation to implement minimum service levels, which are common across many countries, including in the EU.”