Employers threatened with industrial action should be allowed to hire strikebreakers to avoid widespread disruption to services, the CBI has said.
The business group called on the Government to overhaul existing strike law so that organisations can recruit agency workers to cover for striking employees during periods of unrest.
Since 2004, it has been illegal for employers to recruit temps during strikes from agencies, although they can still hire workers directly.
But the CBI said many businesses do not have adequate systems in place to recruit hundreds of temps quickly and would prefer to use the big agencies.
In a report published today, the CBI also called for more measures to curb wildcat strikes and repeated its proposal to raise the level of support required for walkouts to 40pc of the balloted workforce. Such a rule would have prevented the recent Tube strikes in London – including the one due today – from going ahead.
The report comes ahead of expected wide-scale industrial action in the public sector in response to the Government’s spending cutbacks.
The number of public sector working days lost to disputes has already shot up in the 12 months to July, official figures show, thanks to walkouts such as the Civil Service strike in March and the Royal Mail action last year.
The CBI said employers should have the right to prepare a robust contingency plan to offset the scale of industrial action anticipated.
John Cridland, CBI deputy director-general, said: “It’s perfectly reasonable that employers have a right to keep their businesses up and running during a period of strike action. The [current] restriction of taking temps from a temp agency makes no sense to us. The law should be changed so that employers can hire agency workers to cover for striking staff.”
Mr Cridland said the employer would have to weigh up whether bringing in more labour would aggravate unions further or whether strikebreakers had the right skills to cover staff. Organisations “would not get off scot free” if the rules changed, he added, because they would still be left dealing with “unhappy workers”.
Employers backed the changes. An HR director at a major services company said: “Businesses need to take appropriate action to service the needs of their customers. This would include hiring agency workers to cover for striking employees.” Mick Leafe, HR director at bus operator Nottingham City Transport, said: “The right to hire agency workers should be a tool available for organisations faced with damaging industrial action. The difficulty is that it is a very provocative step and likely to hinder the progress of good employee relations.”
Unions were outraged at the proposals, claiming they would prolong industrial disputes. Tony Woodley, Unite’s joint leader, said: “The CBI’s proposals are not designed to improve industrial relations but instead to deny workers any voice in their working lives.”
Some employment experts also claimed employers should focus on preventing industrial disputes rather than minimising their impact. Duncan Brown, of the Institute for Employment Studies, said: “Bringing in workers to cover for strikes doesn’t look at the underlying issue. It’s a sticking plaster but employers must work at building employee relations.”
Meanwhile Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London, has called for ministers to raise the legal threshold for triggering a strike, threatening to undermine the Prime Minister’s attempts to avoid confrontation with the unions.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Mr Johnson accuses the trade unions, with Labour support, of pursuing a “nightmarish return to the politics of the 1980s” with “wave after wave of debilitating strikes”.
“The government should consider a law insisting on a minimum 50 per cent participation in a strike ballot,” he writes.