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Government’s ‘anti-strike’ bill discriminates against women

The government’s Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which seeks to set minimum service levels during periods of industrial action, will disproportionately impact women who already face discrimination, according to campaigners from the Fawcett Society, Pregnant Then Screwed, The Equality Trust, the Women’s Budget Group and the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

In a letter to the equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, the consortium warned the bill will “have a silencing effect on women who are already outnumbered by men two-to-one in positions of power".

Noting that the 75% of teachers and 77% of the NHS workforce are women, the letter says: “In an already-challenging labour market, rife with discrimination, the last thing working women need is to be threatened with the sack for exercising their democratic right to strike and for trying to defend their pay and working conditions – especially in a cost of living crisis.”

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Speaking to HR magazine, Jo Mackie, head of employment law at Lawrence Stephens said: “There is no doubt that by restricting women’s ability to strike, the legislation will force this group of workers into poorer conditions.

"Women, who are poorly treated anyway, will no longer be able to make their point by striking, which is often their only recourse, and so in my mind, the bill constitutes sex-discrimination. If the unions aren’t already onto this, they should be.”

The letter to Badenoch accuses the legislation of being “draconian,” because women “can be forced to work and be sacked if they don’t comply".

In a statement to HR magazine, TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: “Discrimination against women already exists in every corner of the labour market. This bill will set the fight for equality in the workplace back even further.

"It is women who will be at the sharp end of this nasty bill. They vastly outnumber men in affected sectors like education and health. It’s time for ministers to drop this spiteful legislation.”

Karen Powell co-founder of Matter of Choice and co-author of Woman of Our Time, argued there is another aspect to the bill: that women need to use it as a way of reshaping the narrative around their vital role in the workplace.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “These campaigners have taken the view that the bill silences women. It's certainly worrying that the bill is being proposed without care and thought towards women, but I say it should be used as a moment in time to really push the voice females have.

“The bigger issue could be that women simply take themselves out of these professions – if they can. So we need to think about how we can give control back to women, to ensure they are being heard. There’s a women’s narrative here that’s needed.”

Last week research by Durham University Business School revealed that membership of trade unions increased between 2017 and 2020, driven by a large increase in female membership. 

In 2020, women accounted for 57% of all trade union members in the UK, up 1.6% during the same period. By comparison, male membership fell 0.8% in the same period.

The House of Lords began debating the bill's second reading on 21 February.