Population: 62,000,000
Capital: London

ILO Core Conventions Ratified:

29 (Forced Labour (1930))
87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise (1948))
98 (Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining (1949))
100 (Equal Remuneration for Work of Equal Value (1951))
105 (Abolition of Forced Labour (1957))
111 (Discrimination in Employment and Occupation (1958))
138 (Minimum Age for Employment (1973))
182 (Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999))

Reported Violations – 2012

Murders: none reported
Attempted Murders: none reported
Threats: none reported
Injuries: none reported
Arrests: none reported
Imprisonments: none reported
Dismissals: none reported

Documented violations – actual number of cases may be higher


The government's austerity measures have hit hard and trade unions have been at the forefront of protests against cuts, particularly in the public sector. Anti-union practices are not uncommon, and many caveats to the right to strike remain.


The public spending cuts imposed by the Conservative-led coalition government to clear the country's budget deficit within a parliamentary term have begun to bite. 2011 has seen the UK economy struggling with only minimal growth (0.4%) and unemployment (8.4%) reaching its highest level since 1994. Youth unemployment is particularly high. There was widespread rioting and looting in several English cities in August. The trade union movement has held major demonstrations against public sector cuts with 250,000 people marching in London on 26 March – the 'March for the Alternative' whilst a nationwide one-day strike took place on 30 November.

Trade union rights in law

Although basic trade union rights are guaranteed, there are some areas of concern. The right to join and form unions is secured in law, as is protection against anti-union dismissal and reprisal. However, unions do not have the right to access workplaces, and the statutory procedure for recognition allows an employer to prevent recognition of an independent union by setting up a company union and extending to it recognition rights. Collective agreements are not legally binding, however trade unions have traditionally supported this voluntary approach.

The right to strike is limited. For a strike to be lawful, the underlying dispute must be fully or mainly about employment related matters. Political and solidarity strikes are prohibited, as is secondary picketing. The procedures for calling a legal strike are long and very technical, and the employer can seek an injunction against a union before a strike has even begun if the union fails to properly observe the required steps. While a worker may not be dismissed within 12 weeks after taking part in a legal strike, firings can legally take place after that.

Link to additional detailed information regarding the legislation on the ITUC website here

In practice

Further changes to the right to strike debated:

As reported in the previous edition, several cases in 2010 highlighted that there are many restrictions on the right to strike in the UK, and that employers can stop industrial action on complex procedural grounds, particularly in relation to balloting procedures.

In March 2011, the Court of Appeal lifted two injunctions against Aslef and the RMT who, following ballots, had called for strike action in disputes with the London and Birmingham Midland Railway and Serco / Docklands Light Railway respectively. Injunctions had earlier been granted on procedural errors in the ballots. The Court of Appeal clarified the extent of the technical obligations on unions with regard to ballots. Building on its ruling in the British Airways case, it confirmed that minor and accidental ballot errors can be disregarded, if they are immaterial to the result. It opposed applying a 'standard of perfection' test that would 'set traps or hurdles for the union which have no legitimate purpose or function'.

Nonetheless, this was still a topic of some controversy in 2011, with the employers' organisation, the Confederation of British Industry, calling on 17 June for changes to the law. In particular, they have called for a minimum threshold to be introduced requiring 40 per cent of members who are balloted to vote in favour before a strike can be called. Under these proposals a simple majority of those voting would not longer be sufficient.

Using derecognition to push through cuts:

In August 2011, Plymouth City Council derecognised Unison, the largest union among its staff, after it refused to sign a new collective agreement. Unison alleged that the agreement meant worse pay and conditions for staff and was potentially discriminatory and called derecognition an 'aggressive and disproportionate response'. After the agreement was revised, Unison agreed to sign it if recognition was restored. Re-recognition was granted in mid-September.

The case underlined union concerns that, in the context of public spending cuts, employers elsewhere in the public sector (where recognition is traditionally very high) might use derecognition to push through cuts in pay and conditions – either as a bargaining tactic or as a longer-term strategy.


Agricultural workers threatened by abolition of wages board: Demonstrations took place outside parliament on 25 October in protest at the Public Bodies Bill, which if passed would lead to the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, the organisation for setting minimum wages and employment conditions in the agricultural sector. An amendment to take the AWB off the list of public bodies to be abolished was defeated in the House of Commons. The labour movement now fears downward pressure on terms and conditions for the estimated 150,000 people working in agriculture.

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