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Minimum service levels could be a headache for HR

Proposed legislation to enforce minimum service levels in public transport, and potentially the NHS, teachers, Border Force and fire services has been slammed by unions.

First outlined in October 2022, the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill seeks to obligate employers and trade unions to maintain some level of public transport services in the event of a strike.

Now, according to The Guardian, such minimum service levels may be extended to other areas of the public sector, and unions are expected to take legal action against the bill.

It expected to be discussed by prime minister Rishi Sunak when parliament resumes on 9 January.

Revisit our November/December 2022 cover story on industrial action here: Why does it feel like everyone is going on strike?

As the UK faces another slew of rail strikes which could last until May 2023, Simon Jones, director of HR consultancy Ariadne Associates, said this bill is not the answer.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “Making strikes even more difficult is not the way to improve employment relationships. There’s already a very high threshold to meet and if a strike vote is successful [i.e. at least 40% of all eligible members are in favour in transport, health and education], it suggests that a high proportion of your workforce are unhappy.

“It’s better to deal with the underlying issues than add further legal complexity to what are already difficult situations.”

The month the bill was introduced was recorded as the UK’s worst month for strikes in over a decade as the Office for National Statistics reported 417,000 lost working days.

In another bid to stem the disruption caused by industrial action, the UK government overturned a ban on firms using contractors to cover for striking workers which union bodies accused of undermining workers’ rights.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has since reported government to the United Nations (UN) over its strike response.

Mandating minimum service levels would add further complications for HR added Jones.

He said: “If staff can’t legally strike then HR will find itself having to deal with more informal disruptions, such as a rise in short-term absence, passive aggressive resistance to business changes and more formal grievances on apparently trivial issues.

“This could be a counterproductive piece of legislation.”

Tim Tyndall, employment partner at Keystone Law, said it would also bring further complexity to union-related employment law.

Tyndall said: “Those familiar with recognition cases and the operation of the Central Arbitration Committee will recognise the opportunity for dispute and complexity which is why, presumably, minimum service levels may also be set by regulations made by the incumbent secretary of state. 

“If implemented, this bill will present yet more complexity to the law relating to trade unions and the potential for dispute as to the terms of a minimum service agreement.”