Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says his plans to bring in minimum service levels during strike action “shouldn’t be controversial” as “they’re present in France, Italy and Spain”.
But union leaders say the government has “failed to mention” the stark differences between these countries’ rules and those the UK government wants to bring in.
So, how do strikes compare elsewhere in Europe and is industrial action more restricted in the UK? Here’s what you need to know.
What is the government planning in the UK?
The government introduced a bill to Parliament on Tuesday 10 January which, if passed, will allow ministers to require vital public services in England, Scotland and Wales to deliver minimum safety levels during strikes. The rules could see unions being sued if they don’t comply.
Minimum safety levels – sometimes called minimum service levels – are the levels of service the government will expect to be provided during industrial action. The Prime Minister said it is a “simple proposition” which would balance the unions’ need to strike with supplying life-saving care for those who need it.
Critics of the government are concerned that they will make unions less powerful in negotiation about pay and conditions for workers by reducing the impact of future strikes.
How are planned strike rules in the UK similar to France, Italy and Spain?
Workers in the UK, France, Italy and Spain all have the right to strike – both in the public and private sector.
Minimum service levels during public sector strike action is also in place in those three EU countries, which is what the UK plans to implement in some public sector areas.
All four countries also have a notice period that has to be given before industrial action takes place, though the length of these differs between nations.
How does strike action differ between the UK and France, Italy and Spain?
In the UK, 14 days’ notice is required before strike action. This will remain in place if minimum safety levels are implemented in some public sector areas.
Workers in France have 48 hours to declare if they are striking, whereas in Italy 10 days’ notice is needed before strike action in public services – which cannot be called off once it’s announced unless there are major breakthroughs in negotiations.
In Spain, if the strike affects companies in charge of public services, ten days’ notice must be given.
In a post on the Institute of Employment Rights website, Keith Ewing, Professor of Public Law at King’s College London, and Lord John Hendy KC, Chair of the Institute of Employment Rights, also said “the choice of France as a comparator is a poor one” as the minimum service legislation in the country has “never been deployed for transport strikes”.
However, this is set to be the case in the UK as minimum safety level legislation is planned to cover rail services, with the government also expecting to reach voluntary agreements with other transport services.
In France, Italy and Spain, participating in a strike does not lead to being fired. However, the proposed UK anti-strike legislation will require trade unions to follow it, as well as allowing employers to prevent the strike from taking place, seek damages afterwards if unions do not meet their obligations and dismiss workers who refuse to comply with minimum service levels during industrial action.
Dr Manuela Galetto, Associate Professor of Employment Relations and Co-Director of the Industrial Relations Research Unit at Warwick University, told FactCheck that even when the procedures and notice time are not entirely followed in France, Italy and Spain, “the consequences on workers participating in a strike is never losing the job”.
In Italy, for example, the consequences “would have to be ‘proportionate’ to the damage or disruption caused”.
She said that in these three countries “the government has no right to fire any employees working in the public sector”, and that an individual organisation, for example a hospital, is the one who would decide on the action it takes, but “definitely not the government”.
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy said: “The rules around balloting for industrial action or the notice that a trade union must give to an employer have been in place for many years and are unchanged by the legislation that the government introduced [last] week.
“The focus of this legislation is about ensuring there are minimum levels of safety during strike action in a range of vital public services. Similar approaches operate in many countries in Europe, such as Italy and Spain.”
The UK government is trying to pass legislation that could require some workers in sectors like rail and emergency healthcare to work on strike days.
Unions worry that this could weaken their hand in negotiations over pay and conditions by reducing the impact of future strikes.
Rishi Sunak says the plans “shouldn’t be controversial” because such rules are already in place in France, Spain and Italy.
It’s true that those countries have laws requiring minimum levels of service during industrial action, though some elements of the UK’s plans are more stringent.