Feminist campaign groups have raised the alarm about the government’s anti-strike bill, which will enforce minimum service levels, saying women’s rights will be disproportionately affected by the restrictions.
In a letter to the equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, a coalition of four organisations as well as the TUC said that public services with a predominantly female workforce including health and education would have their rights affected by the bill.
The bill, which is expected in the House of Lords on Tuesday, would give the business secretary the powers to make regulations over minimum levels of service and employers would consult unions on what that means in practice.
Staff who breach minimum service levels will lose employment protections and could be sacked, a change unions have said breaches fundamental rights. The letter is signed by the Fawcett Society, Pregnant Then Screwed, the Equality Trust, the Women’s Budget Group and the TUC.
“This draconian legislation will mean that when workers democratically and lawfully vote to strike across a range of sectors – including health and education which have a predominantly female workforce – they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t comply,” the letter said.
It says that the teaching workforce is 75% women, with 89% of support staff women. In the NHS, 77% of the workforce are women and 82% are women in social care. Other sectors that will be affected include transport, where just 20% of the workforce are women, and the fire service where just 18% are women.
“In an already-challenging labour market rife with discrimination, the last thing working women need is to be threatened with the sack for exercising their democratic right to strike and for trying to defend their pay and working conditions – especially in a cost of living crisis,” it says.
Unions have said the law will fundamentally affect the right to strike for certain professions, including staff whose presence is needed for services to physically operate.
Jemima Olchawski, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said: “If passed, this bill will have a silencing effect on women who are already outnumbered by men 2:1 in positions of power.
“For many women who work in systemically undervalued sectors, strike action is critical to making their voices heard. What’s more, we know that women, especially women of colour, are at the sharp end of the cost of living crisis – workplaces must work for women and the starting point for this must be decent pay and working conditions.”
The TUC’s general secretary, Paul Nowak, said: “No one should face discrimination at work because of their gender. But too many women are treated unfairly by their employer because they are pregnant. Too many are pushed out of work because they have caring responsibilities for children or elderly parents. And too many still experience sexual harassment at work.”
The Lords will debate the bill’s second reading on Tuesday amid expectation it could come under more criticism in the upper chamber because it contains more sweeping provisions than the pledge in the Conservative manifesto – which covered only transport.
It comes as tens of thousands of junior doctors in England voted to strike for 72 hours next month and thousands of ambulance workers in the GMB and Unite unions stopped work on Monday in their dispute over pay and staffing. Further strikes next month have been announced by the Royal College of Nursing and teachers’ strikes will also go ahead next week.