Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Opinion

Anti-strike bill: a step toward forced labour in the UK?

The government seems willing to undermine the very bedrock of human rights law to keep employees at work

Aidan McQuade
1 February 2023, 2.31pm

Outside UCH Hospital in January 2023


Maggie Sully/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Theresa May, both as home secretary and prime minister, pushed for the UK to become a global leader in the international struggle against contemporary forms of slavery. Her vision was always a blurred one, in which she somehow reconciled championing the 2015 Modern Slavery Act alongside prosecuting victims of human trafficking for the crime of “illegal working”. But at least she articulated an ambition to make the UK something better.

That ambition is long gone. Instead, the UK now has government ministers who revel in their contempt for human rights, including anti-slavery protections. The home secretary, Suella Braverman, has repeatedly and groundlessly asserted that migrants are trying to “game the system” by claiming to have been trafficked. She is doing her best to reframe slavery as an immigration matter, and NGOs fear that the government’s protection responsibilities will be neglected in favour of establishing a hard-faced and xenophobic deportation policy.

This affront to national and international law has attracted criticism from the United States, the United Nations, and even the UK’s Office for Statistics Regulation. In normal times, it would also probably attract censure from the UK’s own anti-slavery commissioner. But that role is currently vacant because Braverman has failed to appoint anyone to it. How fortuitous for her.

Forced labour and the right to strike

This is not to say that this government shows no ambition. When it comes to undermining workers’ rights, it’s really looking to shine.

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For that’s what it means to remove protections for victims of trafficking and ‘modern slavery’, terms which in part denote the world’s most extreme forms of labour exploitation. And it is also what it means to infringe on the right to strike – workers’ most powerful tool for sticking up for themselves. This government wants to do both. In doing so, it’s moving victims of ‘modern slavery’ and the UK’s general workforce one step closer together.

Let me explain further.

The government’s anti-strike bill looks scarily close to a nascent form of state-sponsored forced labour.

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill proposes that any worker who wishes to go on strike on a given day may have their rights and protections to do so removed, should their employer conclude that they must work to provide a “minimum level of service” – which is defined by the employer. If losses arise from workers not satisfying this employer-defined minimum level of service, the workers’ union would also become liable for a civil claim.

With regards to this anti-strike law, the Guardian observed:

Striking itself would not be banned, but the rights of workers to withdraw their labour without fear of repercussion would be drastically reduced, as would the capacity of trade unions to provide collective representation – their raison d’être. There is no way to configure that except as a targeted assault on the foundations of organised labour and a withdrawal of fundamental economic freedoms.


I would also go a step further. This is an example of a state, the UK, introducing measures to compel individuals to work contrary to their own choice. In the parlance of international law that is known as forced labour.

The 1930 Forced Labour Convention, which the UK has signed and ratified, defines this as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily." Protection from this is one of the most fundamental rights in international law, and I would say that what the government has proposed is a pretty clear-cut reversal of the protections under that convention and related domestic law.

Those Tories who have actually read the Forced Labour Convention could, conceivably, argue that the bill is sheltered by the "normal civic obligations of the citizen" exemption of the Forced Labour Convention. But the bill does not talk about “obligations” of all citizens. It’s too preoccupied with removing rights, including that for collective representation from particular workers in named professions.

Others might argue that restricting the right to strike is nothing like forced labour, because workers can still quit. Employers might be able to threaten dismissal if minimum service levels aren’t maintained, but they can’t (yet) prevent people from walking out the door.

Perhaps. But, as many such workers cannot reasonably quit their jobs because of the risks of abject poverty this would entail, the bill is a proposal to abuse those workers’ positions of economic vulnerability to remove their freedom of choice in work, and in protest. “Abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability … for the purpose of exploitation”, by the way, is language found in the international law on trafficking. We’re in dangerous territory here, and for the government it’s not a good look.

In short: the proposed measures of the government’s anti-strike bill look scarily close to a nascent form of state-sponsored forced labour.

It's a long way from the rhetoric of Theresa May that asserted the UK as a global anti-slavery leader. Not that this British government would be bothered. International law and human rights are not their thing. As should be clear by now, they govern for the benefit of their chums. Everything else, from the rights of poorly paid essential workers to the international reputation of their own country, is irrelevant to them.

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